HL Deb 02 May 1977 vol 382 cc798-801

2.43 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 it is their practice to order the destruction of official documents which relate to controversial or sensitive political issues; how many cases they are aware of in which such historically valuable documents have been destroyed; to which political issues these destroyed documents related and whether, in their view, such destruction is in accordance with the Public Record Act 1958.

The LORD CHANCELLOR: (Lord Elwyn-Jones)

My Lords, it is not the practice of the Government to order the destruction of official documents which relate to controversial or sensitive political issues. In respect of the period during which I have had ministerial responsibility in this field no such documents have to my knowledge been destroyed.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for that reassuring reply, although it is in a sense somewhat limited. Is the noble and learned Lord aware of the deep concern felt among historians and others at the system under which public records are weeded out for permanent preservation, and in some cases destroyed on the basis that they are not of any value? Will he understand that there is concern, and consider this matter in the Cabinet Committee, a Committee of which the noble and learned Lord is a member, which is about to sit on Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act?


My Lords, of course I am aware of that concern. The difficulty is the quantum of the mass of paper produced by Government Departments, both under the present Administration and perhaps even the previous one. The difficulty is that preservation of all records is not only administratively impossible but might even be detrimental to historians, because the sheer bulk that would otherwise survive would mean that the whole business of processing and arranging and issuing the material would slow down the possibilities for the historian to an unacceptable extent.

The process that now takes place of weeding out—as it has been somewhat inelegantly described by the noble Lord—follows the recommendations of the Grigg Committee, and the procedure does now enable a Department to get rid of duplicate copies or strictly subordinate and routine materials within a period of five years. If the material is not destroyed then, it is kept for a further 20 years, and at that point of time there is consideration of the historical criterion. But I have no reason to believe that at either of those stages is there destruction of documents because their survival would cause or could cause political or other embarrassment. Indeed, the fact that the Cabinet Office still holds the Profumo papers, despite Lord Denning's view that they had been destroyed, is evidence of itself of Departmental attitudes. May I say that—I apologise for the length of the answer—so far as is known, deliberate destruction of an official record on grounds of political sensitivity has never been established in modern times, although the possibility that it has happened cannot, of course, he excluded.


My Lords, is not the boot slightly on the other foot in fact? After the further 20 years, I think most of the documents are sent to Hayes. The experts concerned tend to keep what is tendentious rather than what is run of the mill. I should like the opinion of the noble and learned Lord. Is it likely, I ask him, that the Paston Letters would have been kept when they came up for review? I do not know what the answer would be. My feeling is —and I should like confirmation—that the fact that it was a quarrelsome matter might lead to their being kept rather than otherwise.


My Lords, I wish I was as familiar with the contents of the Paston Letters as the noble Lord, but I am quite sure that the test that is applied in the preservation of records is not: "Are these tendentious? Jolly good; then we will keep them" I am sure that is not the approach of the responsible civil servants, who retain documents which are of historical significance and withhold those which are affected by considerations of security or by the consideration that they came into being as a result of confidential information communicated, in which case, of course, in a given case they can be withheld from publication for ever.


My Lords, on listening to the noble and learned Lord's reply, as he mentioned Grigg, would he be aware that the Grigg Committee did sit 25 years ago? He also spoke about these documents as being of historical significance. Would he also be aware that it is not only the historical significance that now has to be considered in relation to documents, but a great many more interests: that is, scientific, political, economic, and even geographical?


My Lords, I fully accept that amplification of the grounds which I gave which has fallen from the noble Lord who so helpfully introduced a lengthy debate we had on this interesting subject some time ago. I appreciate that the Grigg Report came out in 1954, but I am satisfied that since then there has been a very considerable improvement in the keeping of records and the care of public records.


My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord please answer that part of my question which related to the Cabinet Committee which is about to sit, of which he is a member?


My Lords, yes. That Cabinet Committee is considering openness of communications and greater openness in regard to Government and preparatory papers. I am not sure that the precise matter which the noble Lord raised comes within its field, but I am willing to have a look at it. I am full of sympathy with the concern of historians and researchers in this area, but I must also ensure that I maintain responsibility for the public interest in this matter.

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