HL Deb 03 July 1979 vol 401 cc294-308

6.5 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. In doing so, I have to declare two interests. One is that I obtain my living very largely as a genealogical record agent and the second is that I have had the privilege of serving as a member of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor's advisory council on public records for some years.

There must not be thought to be any reflection on either the importance or the interest in this Bill in the fact that only the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham, is sitting on the Front Bench opposite. I am very glad that he is to speak. I sympathise with the noble Lord in having to make two speeches in one afternoon, and also with my noble and learned friend who is going to be kind enough to reply.

The Long and the Short Titles of the Bill look rather vague, so I shall begin by explaining them. Basically, this Bill would make the registers of births, marriages and deaths in the custody of the Registrar General into public records when they become 100 years old. This means that these records would be transferred to the Public Record Office, where they could be seen on microfilm. At the moment, all registers of births, et cetera, are specifically excluded from the Public Records Act 1958.

Noble Lords may be wondering why I am persisting with this Bill, considering the present economic climate. They may remember the Second Reading during the last Parliament, in November, when the noble and learned Lord raised doubts as to the validity of the cost involved. That occasion was unfortunate, in as much as it was heard one and a half hours before it was forecast, much to the consternation of myself and the then noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor.

The situation regarding costs is now much more restrictive than it was then. At one time I was diffident about reintroducing the Bill. However, this Session is to be much longer than usual, which gives more hope for Bills of this kind surviving. I was advised that not even to proceed with a Second Reading would be unnecessarily reticent, because implementation is carefully safeguarded in Clause 3 of the Bill which seeks only to remove a legal obstacle.

On the last occasion, I gave noble Lords a brief history of general registration which I hope they will forgive me for not repeating, although I wish to add a little more in order to explain the current situation. However, may I refresh your Lordships' memories by saying that general registration began in the year 1837. This was the start of the Office's long and distinguished history which, among many other things, has produced so much essential statistical information, including the 1861 and subsequent decennial censuses.

Public access has always been allowed in the search rooms, and until 1898 members of the public were allowed to inspect the register themselves. Incidentally, this rule remains in Scotland. Since then, members of the public have been permitted to inspect only the indexes. In order to obtain any more information they have to purchase a certificate. This charge remained for many years at 3/9d. The current charge for obtaining the same information from the public search room, in person, is £2.75 and by postal application £6.50.

Apart from the obvious need for persons wanting copies of birth and marriage certificates, and death certificates for their immediate forbears, for legal and other purposes, there has been a steady increase in the last decade—very sharp indeed in the last year or so—in the number of people having a desire to trace their family history. This interest has grown in people who come from all walks of life and not only, as some noble Lords may think, from those who have pretensions. It is a genuine and natural interest, and I must admit that it has also been encouraged by the media. Last year it was encouraged by the American television programme " Roots " and, more recently, by the BBC television series presented by Mr. Gordon Honeycombe. I gather that the BBC have had no fewer than 10,000 letters arising from it and have thought it fit to repeat the series.

All this has produced an intolerable burden on the General Register Office and has produced a crush of people in the search room at St. Catherine's House, which is often unbearable, without exaggeration, not only during the summer but the whole year round. This congestion is especially bad during school holidays and half terms and again between the hours of 12 and 2, when many more people rush in and pursue their hobby instead of taking lunch.

Genealogy, family history, or call it what you will, plays a great part in the field of tourism. Many people visit this country from the United States of America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and from Southern Africa specifically to discover their origins. The Tourist Board are fully aware of this and have published a pamphlet called Tracing your Ancestors. When and if this Bill becomes law, members of the public will be able to consult microfilms of the original registers. The microfilming is still in progress but is well on the way to completion for the period concerned. Births and marriages are almost finished and there only remain the deaths to be done.

Here I must take the opportunity of saying that the explosion of genealogical interest has had repercussions not only in the search room at St. Catherine's House, but also in the Census Room at the Public Record Office, which I believe is causing much concern to the keeper there. At busy times that room is full to overflowing and I think I am right in saying that there were no fewer than 750 readers in the four days following the Whitsun Bank holiday, and on one day there were no fewer than 200 readers. It is a situation that cannot be allowed to continue. Also I think I can speak for the office, but anyway for the Advisory Council, who are alarmed at the present position regarding the economic cuts. The under-manning of staff could well lead to a serious deterioration of services at present offered to the public.

I am sure that my noble and learned friend will explain the financial implication of this Bill and this being the case I will touch on it only briefly, while not belittling its importance since it is the whole crux. Since the last Bill there have been meetings with the Treasury, the Civil Service Department and the Property Services Agency. While this operation was under way the extra costs could be quite small. I will not say minimal, but small. I believe it is the instituting and installing of equipment and the accommodation, the costs of which are quite high, which cause the real problem.

I now come to the Bill itself. Clause 1 amends the Public Records Act of 1958 to include registers of births, marriages and deaths where they were previously excluded, where they have been in existence for 100 years or less, deposited in the General Register Office under or in pursuance of any enactment. There are numerous minor consequentials covered by this with which I need not bother your Lordships, except to give one or two examples—namely, the consular returns; regulations made under the Civil Aviation Act as regards births, deaths and missing persons on hovercraft, which might sound rather bizarre; the Moscow marriages from 1826 to 1856 and the Ionian Islands Acts from 1816 to 1858. There are many extraordinary matters like that.

Your Lordships will notice that registration of adoptions and stillbirths is still excluded. You will appreciate that the nature of those documents makes them particularly sensitive and that the registers started only in 1927, so even if they were not excluded they would not become available until 2027 or 2028.

So far I have not mentioned that there is a great deal of important historical and demographic work proposed to be done on these registers. Some economic and social historians are disappointed that the period will remain at 100 years. I have discussed this matter with many groups but have come to the conclusion that it is better, because of the sensitive nature of these records, that the 100 year rule should remain. However, subsection (3) allows for this period to be shortened should the climate of public opinion change and should it be thought to be desirable without resorting to further legislation. Here I can say that the Public Records Committee are currently looking into the changing use of records such as that by demographers, whose branch of history has grown, having been previously left out of account by the Grigg Committee of 1954.

In conclusion, the preparation of this Bill has been most agreeable. It has been drafted by a distinguished and well-known Queen's counsel and I am very grateful for the co-operation that I have received from both the Government Departments concerned and other interested persons. This Bill has the backing of the Advisory Council, because its chairman, namely, the Master of the Rolls, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, would have been here in person today if he were not a spectator at an annual sporting event in South-West London, which no one could deny him the pleasure of attending.

I appreciate that my noble and learned friend cannot give me a very encouraging reply, in which case I should like to have his advice on how to proceed. I had hoped that the Bill could be accepted as there is a commencement clause, namely Clause 3 and thence after the Bill had passed through all its stages here I would try to find a Member of the other place to take it on there. If that is not acceptable I should like to know of an alternative, otherwise this little Bill will become a hardy perennial and will get nowhere. Perhaps my noble and learned friend may suggest that the Government would like to take it over at a suitable time. I am open to offers, and therefore I beg to move.

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

6.17 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, is to be congratulated on having lost no time in introducing his Bill into this Parliament. His previous Bill, which received a Second Reading in your Lordships' House on 23rd November last year, was a victim of the Dissolution and now remains a matter of what might indeed be called in the current context " historical public record ". But now the noble Lord's speedy action has brought the Bill forward again. I was not able to be present on the last occasion, but I have read that debate and it is clear that, just as it did then, the House has again benefited from the noble Lord's knowledge and expertise in these matters.

There is no doubt that people are showing increasing interest in public records and in tracing their family history. On the last occasion the noble Lord referred to the " regulars " who go to consult records at St. Catherine's House and elsewhere, and although it is not perhaps something on which an interest has to be declared, I must confess that my wife is one of the fairly frequent customers. As a fourth generation Australian she is keen to trace her forbears. Although she has not actually said so, I suspect she is secretly hoping that one day some public record or another will bestow upon the family what is, to an Australian with origins in this country, the ultimate accolade in family history terms and reveal that one of her ancestors went to Australia as a POHM—a prisoner of His Majesty, as it then would have been. But I am afraid it is a forlorn hope since what they actually did was to go there and help to found the Methodist Church in Victoria.

The subject of public records is one in which my noble and learned friend the former Lord Chancellor took a close interest, as indeed does the noble and learned Lord the present Lord Chancellor. My noble and learned friend took part in that capacity in the last Second Reading debate and he is sorry not to be able to take part today. As he pointed out then, two main issues arise in considering this Bill: whether it is right in principle and whether the proposals are practicable. On the point of principle, the effect of the Bill will be to give the public free access, as we have heard from the noble Lord, to all the births, deaths and marriges registered over 100 years old, and that certainly seems to be desirable. My noble and learned friend went on to explain that acceptance of the principle would mean splitting those registers into two categories, with those over 100 years old going, under the Bill, to the Public Record Office while those under that age would be in the care of the General Register Office. He acknowledged that the merits of the principle may outweigh the possible disadvantages of splitting the registers into two groups.

On the second issue, whether these proposals are practicable and can be given effect to now so that it would be appropriate now to legislate, my noble and learned friend mentioned that there are plainly considerable administrative and financial implications in what is proposed. It is perhaps not necessary for me to spell out the administrative aspects. It is probably quite sufficient simply to recall that my noble and learned friend said that he had suggested that the administrative difficulties could be resolved. But he was less sanguine about the early resolution of the financial implications. Again, I will not detain your Lordships by going over the details, but noble Lords will recollect that my noble and learned friend Lord Elwyn-Jones pointed out that the Bill would involve additional burden on public funds and added that these funds had not yet been authorised, and could not be, because they could not be quantified at that time. It may be that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor may wish to say something further about this tonight.

My Lords, I ought also perhaps to mention very briefly three other reservations that my noble and learned friend expressed in the last Second Reading debate. The first was on whether or not there should be an appointed day provision in the Bill. There is a temptation, as we know, sometimes, for instance, when the money cannot be found immediately to do something, to put a measure on the statute book but to delay its entry into force until an appointed day. He was not at all keen on that idea. Again he confessed that he was not at all happy about the Short Title of the Bill, and the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, has referred to that in his speech today. It was not, and indeed is not,—and I think the noble Lord accepts this, too—very revealing, and perhaps a more precise and informative title might be the one which was suggested during the course of the last debate, something like the Births, Marriages and Deaths Registers (Public Access) Bill, or something similar to that. I do know, and the House knows, of course, that the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, has had the guidance of learned counsel on this point.

Finally, my noble and learned friend raised a reservation about Clause 1(b) which would enable the 100 years' period to be reduced. It was reassuring, I think, to hear the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, agree that the 100 years rule should be maintained, and certainly it remains our view that a firm decision now on the appropriate period would be better than having the period altered from time to time.

My Lords, while we are still unable to give full support to the Bill at the moment because we feel it is somewhat premature, we hope that it will not be too long before it is possible to achieve what the noble Lord seeks, and I would join in commending him for the way in which he has presented this proposal to your Lordships.

6.23 p.m.

The LORD CHANCELLOR (Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone)

My Lords, I congratulate both noble Lords on two admirably succinct speeches about this little Bill. In particular, I am sure the House is fascinated on this occasion, as I expect it was on the last although I had not the good fortune then to be present, by the expertise shown by my noble friend in discussing this rather recondite subject, on which he is a much greater expert than I am. He disclosed two interests. He really only needed to disclose the first, but he did disclose the second. I should like to take the opportunity of thanking him for the public work he does on the advisory committee. We are very glad to have him there and we are grateful for what he does. It is not in the technical sense an interest, but I am sure the House was glad to know from his own lips as well as from mine of his service in that respect.

He also is entitled to claim, and he did claim, the support of the Master of the Rolls, who I think is the chairman of that committee but who is otherwise occupied at this moment. He has not been very well lately; he had a slight accident to his knee about a month ago, so I think none of us would grudge him a little relaxation before he resumes his full parliamentary duties. I am sure the House is very glad to know that he is sufficiently well to be able to take that relaxation on this particular occasion.

My Lords, the actual subject matter of the Bill was so fully and accurately dealt with by my noble and learned predecessor so recently that I think it really would be a work of supererogation on my part to repeat what he said. With his customary geniality, he concealed what was really rather a dusty answer behind a friendly and forthcoming manner. My Lords, I took the precaution of seeking to soften the blow to my noble friend by indicating to him that too, am driven by the force of circumstances and against my natural generous inclinations to give him an answer which is only marginally, if at all, less dusty than that of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, a few months ago.

Of course, my noble friend has put his case not only with clarity but, as one would expect, with perfect fairness. First, perhaps I should say, although readers of Hansard will already know from my noble and learned friend's utterance, that this Bill has nothing whatever to do with open government. The registers of births and so on which are dealt with in the Bill are in the general sense open to inspection. That is to say, the public are entitled to look at the index and are then entitled to demand and receive, on payment of a small fee, a certified copy of the entry in the original register. For obvious reasons, they are not entitled to handle the registers themselves as of right. Obviously the originals are of great importance and one does not want them either disfigured or damaged in any way.

The public are, as it is, entitled to a certified copy of the register once they have inspected the index. At the moment the index and the register are not under the general tutelage of my department—it is that of the Registrar General—and they go to a place called St. Catherine's House, which I think might well be described as a sort of annexe to Somerset House, to inspect the index and get their certified copies. Owing to the great increase in custom, the space available, I believe, is both inconvenient and over-crowded, and that, I gather from my noble friend's description, is a perfectly fair criticism to make of it.

If this Bill were to be passed and implemented—and they are two quite separate processes—what would happen would be that registers under 100 years old would continue (if I have got it right, which I hope I have) where they are, subject to exactly the same rules as at present and subject to whatever fee the Registrar General, under pressure from the Treasury or elsewhere, would impose. On the other hand, those which are over 100 years old would be transferred to the Public Record Office, which for this purpose is not in Chancery Lane but at Kew.

Therefore, if someone wanted to look at a number of records for the purpose of tracing his own or someone else's ancestry, he would have to go to two places instead of one. He would have to go to St. Catherine's House and pay a fee there and then go to Kew and look at the older one. Whether that would be quite as convenient as my noble friend thinks, I do not know enough about the subject to say. Obviously certain people who wanted to inspect a number of entries would find it less convenient because they would have to go to two places and be under two entirely separate jurisdictions. As I understand it, when they arrived at Kew they would not get quite the type of certified copy that they get now, but they might get what was marginally more valuable to them—at least my noble friend would know better than I whether it would be marginally more valuable to them: they would get a microcopy of the original register.


My Lords, I hesitate to interrupt my noble and learned friend. If they went to Kew, what in fact would happen is that they would be able to inspect the register themselves and obtain the information there without having to buy a certificate which they do not necessarily want.


My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. They would not have to buy a certificate, but if they wanted to take anything away with them they would have to get a microfilm. Whether that would be a preferable process to looking at the index and then getting a certified copy, is a question which only experts can answer. Some might argue one way and some might argue the other.

I do not think that there can be any objection in principle to splitting the records—if that is what people want—and making them go, according to when the register was filled in, to an annexe of St. Catherine's House or to Kew. I have heard some rumours and I do not know whether they are true or false. If St. Cathe[...]ine's House were to be moved under the decentralisation programme, which previous Administrations have had—and I have heard rumours that it was to be moved to Stockport or somewhere—I think that the disadvantages of a split register might be rather bigger than they would he as between central London and Kew. But that again is something which only those who use this kind of documentation could find out.

Personally, I am not at all hostile—and hope that I have made that plain—to my noble friend's suggestion. I like to think that the Record Office is a more attractive place to him. I am responsible for the Record Office and I like to think of it as being slightly more attractive to him and to others than that which is presided over by another department. I am complimented, or rather on behalf of the Public Record Office I am complimented, by this preference, but it would, of course, depend on the accommodation and the service which we could provide.

Here I am sorry to say that I come to the same awkward fence at which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, shied when he came to go round the course on behalf of the last Government, and that is the well-known fence called "expense". I am told that the capital cost of doing what my noble friend wants would be £300,000—a small figure when one is dealing with £70,000 million or whatever figures are now dealt with from the Treasury Bench. However, to a humble little department like mine, and especially to one of its outstations like the Public Record Office, it is a tidy sum. It is a sum for which I would have to fight tooth and nail and which—under the unaccountable method of accountancy which successive Governments have pursued for over 100 years (and who am Ito question either tradition or matters of high finance?)— would have to be voted in whole in one financial year if the work were to be undertaken. Frankly, I do not have that money for the current financial year and I shall not have it for the next. That puts a very serious bar against my noble friend's legitimate ambitions, if they be legitimate.

Moreover, to that £300,000—and I am told that the figure may be larger than £300,000 and will certainly not be smaller than £300,000—one would have to add what I am advised would be an annual increased cost of £105,000 a year. Again, it is a trivial sum in comparison with those of the great spending departments, but unfortunately my outstations are not great spending departments. Indeed, one of them, the Land Registry, is able to hand over to the Treasury a modest profit every year, so I appear with some degree of sanctity when I come to deal with these matters. However, I would still have to find what I have not—namely, £300,000, minimum, of capital expenditure and an additional expenditure on servicing of £105,000.

I think the argument might be that that could be found by charging fees. It will be said, " After all, the Registrar General charges a fee at present in St. Catherine's House. Why should not the official at Kew charge a fee? " I am told that that shakes the Public Record Office to the core because it gives its services free. The idea that it should charge a fee is rather like suggesting that people should be charged a fee for entering a public museum. I remember only too well at the beginning of the last Administration in which I served in this House, what a row there was about that. I am told that there would be very great political difficulties in altering the policy.

Personally, I must say to my noble friend that I sympathise with the desire to charge fees, but it would raise what the Treasury calls with a shrill cry of alarm " repercussions ", if I were to do it in my own department. Therefore, I cannot make many promises about that. More-over, my initial briefiing was that the fees, if charged, to pay back according to the unaccountable system of accountancy, would be prohibitive in the sense that the humble genealogist, freed no doubt from the inconveniences, jostling and smells of St. Catherine's and admitted to the enlarged and fresh air of Kew, would none the less find the cost when he got there prohibitive—indeed, so prohibitive that he would not be able to pursue his inquiries. I am not altogether convinced by that argument, but that is what I am told might be the case.

That means that there is really rather a lot of difficulty about accepting my noble friend's suggestion. Very thoughtfully—and I admit that it was very thoughtful of him—he has included a type of commencement provision saying that it will only come into operation when the Lord Chancellor of the day (remembering as I do that the lives of Lord Chancellors, like the natural life of man, are " solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short ") begins to bring it in by some form of Statutory Instrument. That is all very well, but I think that a point of principle arises here. Unless one promises to do so within a rational period of time—that is to say this year, next year, but not some time or never—I do not think that one ought to do that kind of thing. I think that that is bad legislation. I have hideous recollections of my deceased and much beloved noble friend Lord Merthyr, I think it was, every year asking about the Easter Act 1928—which has still not been brought into effect after 51 years. Therefore, I resist on principle the idea that I could accept a Bill simply because it has a commencement date which I could not promise to implement within the foreseeable or definite future.

My noble friend asked me what he should do next. Again, I do not want to hold out any promises and I do not want to lead him in any way up the garden path. However, I hope that I have given him a sufficiently dusty answer not to have done that. I should like to assure him that beneath this rather unusual costume there beats a warm and loving heart, which will pursue this matter with colleagues in one way or another. If he withdraws the Bill, I shall see what I can do for him; I might even see what I can do for him if he does not. However, he should consider that with the expenditure of public money involved and the fact that when the Bill reaches another place the Government can ensure that it founders, he ought not to inflict on this House an undue Committee stage.

Of course, I congratulate my noble friend on having obtained professional assistance in the drafting of his Bill. It is no kind of criticism of his professional assistant in this matter. On the contrary, it is a beautiful little piece of work. I must remind him of a sad experience once had in another place when I, personally, drafted a Bill of one clause. I won the Ballot for the Private Member's Bill, and in those days I flattered myself on being an expert legal draftsman. On that occasion the Government accepted my Bill. It did not cost them any money; it only cost money to putative fathers and deserting husbands; so the Government were quite pleased to accept it. However, they handed my Bill over to the parliamentary draftsmen. The only words which remained in the little one-clause Bill which I had drafted were the Short Title, and that was only because the parliamentary draftsman was not free to alter it under the conventions which afflict another place. Therefore, I am afraid that the Committee stage could not be regarded as a complete formality. On the whole, I hope that my noble friend, having got the better of the argument—as I frankly admit he probably has—will now be a generous opponent and withdraw his Bill, trusting to the loving heart rather than to the for-bidding exterior.

6.43 p.m.


My Lords, this has been a most enjoyable experience this afternoon. I shall take with me to the grave the memory of my noble and learned friend's loving heart. I will deal very briefly with the matters which he raised. On the question of open government, I did not mean what he said at all. He can have my assurance that my views are very conservative. On the question of the two locations instead of just the one—that is, St. Catherine's House at the Aldwych and the location at Kew at the other end of the Richmond branch of the District Line—they are rather a long way away from each other, and it would be inconvenient for people to travel from one to the other. But people would be prepared to go there, pay a modest fee and be able to look at microfilms. They would not have to buy the microfilm; they would put it on a reader and then write down the details. That would be a very great advantage. Most of the functions of the General Register Office are being transferred to Southport—that was the subject of another of my little battles some years ago with other noble Lords—but the Public Search Room will remain in Central London.

I turn to the question of costs. I gather that the cost of £300,000 has increased in the last few months, but that is due to the necessity to strengthen a certain building by the Property Services Agency. However, the annual extra cost of £105,000 greatly alarms me, because the last time I heard about it, it was between £40,000 and £50,000 for being at Kew, and, if in Central London, between £70,000 and £80,000. However, one has to expect figures of that kind.

I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham, for his interesting intervention. I look forward to talking to him later or at some suitable time about Australian genealogy, in which I am no great expert. Sometimes I look up transportation records to trace ancestors, although it is rather a social cachet in Australia to have been descended from such a person.

I turn now to what I shall do. The best thing for me to do is to withdraw the Bill, but I do so very reluctantly. I shall simply wait for some joy to come at some time from my noble and learned friend. I do not see any point in battling on. I also hope that pressure may he brought to bear from the Department of Health and Social Security, of which the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys is an out-station, so that it may be included in one of its Bills. I thank noble Lords very much for a pleasant afternoon, and I especially thank my noble and learned friend. Therefore I beg leave to withdraw the Bill.

Motion for Second Reading, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill, by leave, withdrawn.