HL Deb 22 May 1980 vol 409 cc1082-93

5.50 p.m.

LORD TEVIOT rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what plans they have to alleviate the congestion in the public search room at the General Register Office in St. Catherine's House. The noble Lord said: As is customary, my Lords, when the occasion demands, I declare an interest: I earn my living largely as a genealogist and record agent and thus am a frequent visitor to St. Catherine's House. There have been times over the past 10 years when I have spoken on matters relating to registers, records and archives of one sort or another. I had hoped that this time correspondence or the odd word here and there would have meted out now; but here I am back on my feet once again.

First, I am most grateful to noble Lords who have stayed to listen and those who are speaking, in particular to my noble friend who I know has taken so much trouble in preparing the Answer to this Unstarred Question, which is about extremely uncomfortable conditions in the search room at the General Register Office in St. Catherine's House. I will first outline the background and recent events that have caused this great congestion; secondly. I shall try to explain why it has happened. Thirdly, I am going to ask for something to be done.

I am sure that your Lordships will need no telling that the general registration of births, marriages and deaths began on 1st July 1837. The office of the Registrar-General was set up in the part of Somerset House situated by the Strand. As time went on, there were two search rooms. On the east side of the entrance were the indexes of births; on the west the indexes of marriages and deaths. The search rooms had galleries with shelving going round the walls and counters. The offices of the Registrar-General and his staff occupied some fine rooms, well-apportioned with very decorative ceilings.

The status quo remained for the rest of the 19th century and throughout the 20th century until about 1970, when there was a campaign, which was started mainly by the Evening Standard, to free this part of Somerset House for art exhibitions. In particular at that time it was thought that there was going to be a permanent theatrical exhibition—which was later abandoned—instead of the rooms being used just as offices by civil servants. That disregarded the fact that they had been there for some 140 years.

The Government at that time were sympathetic and moved the offices of the Registrar-General, or, as it has now become, the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, to nearby St. Catherine's House on the corner of Aldwych and Kingsway (formerly Television House) which is a large and very expensive building. I am not going to pretend that these two search rooms did not become very crowded at times. However, only the people who wanted to search went up in the galleries. Others, such as children, stayed downstairs. Also, I must admit that, with others, I fought very hard for the public search room of this office to be retained in London when it was mooted that the department would be dispersed to Southport.

Before I leave the first part of my mild oration on the history, I shall reiterate a fact that is well known to your Lordships. I am sure people from all over the English-speaking world knew that either their or their forebears' birth certificates were lodged at Somerset House, and many thought—mistakenly—their pedigrees as well. The connotation "Somerset House" sounded very suitable, and those who looked further saw photographs of this splendid building. If they read the history of it they became more and more intrigued. With secular buildings such as Buckingham Palace and possibly the Palace of Westminster, Somerset House almost spelt out "England".

I must move away from this theme and identify the groups of users and explain the development of the congestion, if that is a way to explain it. The public who visit this search room are split basically into two groups: the first being those who wish to purchase their own birth and marriage certificates for one purpose or another, and those who wish to see the death certificates of their immediate forebears. These people may wish to send their legal representatives or agents. By and large, the group that I have described remained the same in number; and, without my tongue in my cheek, that is principally what the public search room is for, and the Government's responsibility. One cannot forget when talking about the people using this, that the Salvation Army undertake tracing missing relatives or missing husbands and do so much good work.

The other group comprises social historians, demographers, medical historians and epidemiologists, economic historians and, finally, family historians and genealogists. It is the last-named group of people whose interest has mainly caused this explosion.

The number of people who wished to trace their family history or find out where they came from has been growing steadily for a number of years; but this has accelerated in the past five or so years and especially recently, for one reason or another. One is because of the media: namely, a television programme called "Roots"; and, more recently, a programme by Mr. Gordon Honeycombe on BBC2 which has been repeated on television. This programme has created a great deal of correspondence, and many viewers watched it. When he was televised at St. Catherine's House the room was entirely empty. I felt that somebody had slipped up there because it gave a very false impression.

One cannot put the blame—if "blame" is the right word—on the media for the reasons why genealogy has understandably become so popular. There have been special projects in schools and further education classes. There are now organised family history societies from all over the country who do much to further the subject, in addition to more established societies, such as the Society of Genealogists and the College of Arms.

The interest has exploded not only here but all over the English-speaking world. Here I can say one has absolutely no blame on any Government or any Government department, in particular the General Register Office. The latter, I know, has been very concerned with the present situation, and the staff there has been working under extreme pressure, always with a smile on their faces. I do not know how they manage it. The public search room is open on Mondays to Fridays from 8.30 to 4.30. There used to be times when one could recommend people to come when it was quieter. However, now it is permanently like, say, Sainsbury's on a Saturday or Piccadilly Circus, or something like that.

At times the number of people who come to these search rooms is quite frightening, especially in school holidays and at half term. The last school half term was in February, and, apart from an alarm, for the first time in the office's history the doors had to be closed because of this congestion. It was from that date that I felt one must do something about the matter. Also in that week, on the Wednesday, I walked in the public search room at a quarter to nine. I was told that there were 78 people who had been queueing to come in from half past eight. They consisted largely of a coach party from Middlesbrough who had left that city at midnight the night before and had arrived in London at six. Some of them were far from young. Their stamina must be commended. It shows how tough people are in the North of England. They were still "going at it" at four o'clock in the afternoon!

I first wrote all this to my noble friend Lord Bellwin, because the suggestion was put forward to me about asking for the old search room at Somerset House, the search room, to be used on a temporary basis. I say "temporary" because to my certain knowledge this room is very little used since the Registrar-General left it in 1974. It still has the galleries, the shelving and the counter. In fact, one could go back in there and forget that one had ever left it. On a more permanent basis, I had the assurance that the transfer of hundred year old registers from the General Register Office to the Public Record Office could occur.

Your Lordships will recall that I have presented a Bill to enact just that on two occasions, but for economic reasons both attempts failed. But I have been told that, if this could be a revenue-producing function, it would be viable. But until I get a green light from the department concerned, I shall not pursue or reintroduce. The idea has been accepted in principle, and I know that my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor has given me some assurance that he will try to see how this Bill might get through. My noble friend Lord Mowbray kindly explained to me by letter that the room in Somerset House I had asked for could not be used because it was being used as a store for works of art. I shall not press it, but I think it is quite appalling that such excellent rooms—and I would stress to your Lordships that I am not against the arts lobby at all because they do some wonderful work—right in the centre of London have been used so little in recent years.

Finally, I hope I have substantiated my argument and that my noble friend will be able to give me some heartening news. Action is promptly required from the Property Services Agency. On a happier note, I gather that the long-awaited air conditioning is now well in hand. Not to put too fine a point on it, the air is usually distinctly foetid. Also, I would say that family history is not just a hobby for dilettantes, but it is a subject which contributes greatly to the nation's invisible exports by bringing many thousands of visitors from overseas to this country every year solely for the purpose of visiting the places where their ancestors came from and also to trace them. They do not all do their research at St. Catherine's House, but it is the starting point for many of them. They, and those of us who regularly use St. Catherine's House, as well as the Registrar-General and his staff (so many of whom I have got to know personally over the years) deserve something better and urgently need more space.

6.2 p.m.


My Lords, I consider myself singularly fortunate in having, somewhat recklessly and casually, put down my name to speak because I was going to St. Catherine's House at that moment and, by so doing, I have heard the very excellent and admirable speech of the noble Lord, Lord Teviot. I have heard his account of the correspondence, which I did not know. I am really in the position perhaps of Burke's celebrated fellow candidate at Bristol whose speeches were limited to saying: I say 'ditto' to Mr. Burke". So far as I am concerned, I say "ditto" to the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, and I wish that my saying so could carry even additional conviction.

I am not quite to be numbered among the classes detailed by the noble Lord, Lord Teviot. On a previous occasion, I remember some years ago talking rather more widely about the provision of various accommodations for research, because in the course of writing and of historic studies I have had occasion to use various services in France, Switzerland and else-where. At the time when I became a Member of this House, I was completing two long biographies of Frenchmen which are not likely to bring in any money and which have involved my wandering round libraries and registries, checking dates and so on in various places. Of course, in Paris the number of organisations is really remarkable. Incidentally, in the Biblioteque Nationale, which is Mazarin's old library brought up to date, there is a very remarkable service. There is also a very elaborate laboratory service, newspapers, and so on. One does the research very largely on the same premises, using some of the specialist libraries for assistance.

I went there to try to rectify a piece of filial neglect. I had been rather casual about my family, not knowing much about the Hales, except my immediate family and I was confronted with a letter from Burke's Peerage saying that I had failed to inform them of certain dates they wished to publish and among them was the date of marriage of my parents. As I did not know that, I had to take the necessary steps to find out. When I recall that my father was a man of very great integrity and when I think of all that I owe to him, my own casual attitude to the questions we have been discussing earlier today seems quite scandalous; so that I had to go along and check up and give them the dates concerned.

My daughter went over on the day that the noble Lord put down his Question and I found the certificate of the marriage. My father was a very devoted member of the Church of England and he was married when he was 28 years of age at the parish church of Oldbury, with banns and so on. I hope I have now corrected a piece of neglect. Having seen the notice of the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, I went again during this week and, having to inquire about something, I tried to find my grandparents' date of marriage. However, that was altogether too big a problem to solve in such a short time. It required a great deal of research; and the handling of books has to be done standing, which is not a performance for a man of nearly 80.

But as my father's first name was Benjamin, I did find that I could get his birth certificate from the very first book to which I referred, and I have applied for that certificate.

I agree with every word the noble Lord said. I know it has not really been necessary for me to interpose, but I felt it might be still more courteous, having informed the noble Lord that I would be taking part, to come here. The Hales are an obscure family; rather a small family, but in many ways a united family. They spread to America in profusion and provided national heroes, national scientists and national novelists. I think the Minister may have some important things to say to us. I emphasise particularly the absolute necessity for air conditioning, and I hope that the advice which has been given by the noble Lord to the Minister will be successful.

I would add only a single sentence more: the several members of the staff to whom I spoke could not have been more helpful, more courteous, more good-natured or forbearing, when one thinks of the vast number of people who are needing information from them from morning until night.

6.10 p.m.

Viscount LONG

My Lords, I should like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Teviot on once again raising this important subject. His persistence in raising this matter of proper facilities for searching the Registrar-General's indexes of births, marriages and deaths has continued over a number of years, and has included one piece of legislation from which he might have some reward. I should also like to congratulate and thank the noble Lord, Lord Hale, who found the importance of researching into one's family history.

Two distinct functions are performed by this search room. First, people have to go there because official and private demands for proof of birth, marriage or death cause them to need certificates. Others now attend because they want to trace their ancestors. I agree with my noble friend that the television and press media have made more pronounced this demand from people who want to find out about their ancestry. Therefore, more and more people are involved because of that kind of advertising. I would say that this activity is laudable, but not essential to the lives of the people concerned; but it is this area which has grown enormously.

On my noble friend's kind advice, I visited the search room yesterday to see for myself the conditions under which the staff and visitors worked. Having seen the conditions for myself, I should like to congratulate and pay tribute to the staff who, under pretty foul conditions, worked very hard to please everybody going in to do research. 1, too, have every sympathy for the staff and the visitors in the conditions under which they work, and I should say that by the end of the day, especially in hot weather, those conditions become particularly oppressive, because of the lack of air. There is nothing worse than working in an office or a factory which has stagnant, heavy air. The more you work, the less energy you can produce for yourself from that air. So the conditions are not at all pleasant.

I looked into the question whether, under pressure, the building might become unhygienic or unclean, but at the time I went in, which was about 11.30 a.m., I found it particularly clean. Even with all those people going through, it looked very tidy and the books were all in order. All in all, I could find no fault at all there. But I concede that, with many people in there, it would be surprising if the room did not get untidy in the afternoon.

My noble friend quoted some figures, and I thought that before I rose at the Dispatch Box I would find out how many people were there yesterday. At about 11.30, there were already 140 people going through, and the staff—who very kindly offered their services for whatever I wanted—told me that by 3.30 there would probably be 180. It is not a very big room and, with the racks of books and the desks, it was becoming quite full with 140 people in it, excluding the staff.

On previous experience, more than 200 people would be in at lunchtime and, as my noble friend said, on one day the doors had to be closed at lunchtime. On that occasion there were 200 people who were out for a day's holiday by coach. They flooded the area and nobody could move or breathe, but still the staff continued to work under such conditions.

Yesterday I took note of the temperature, and at about 11.30 it was 78 degrees outside. But it is because the air is so static that it is an extremely uncomfortable atmosphere to work in. The room is deep and lacks natural ventilation; more and more people want to look at the indexes and, because of an accident of history, the Registrar-General is compelled to store more and more indexes there.

My answer tonight is in three parts. It covers what we are doing, what we cannot do, and what we would like to do if we could afford it. Your Lordships know that we have the problem of finding the money in these difficult times. My noble friend asked me about the Property Services Agency. That has, for a long time, been looking into the physical problems of the existing search room. It concluded, after trying palliatives, that air conditioning was the only answer to making life more bearable and more comfortable for those working there. After a number of alarms and excursions, the work has now started.

Although there is little evidence of it at the moment—all I saw was one hole in the ceiling—that does not mean that a lot of work is not going on behind the scenes. There has been difficulty in finding where to put the pipes for the new ventilation system. So that work has started, and I gathered from the engineer in charge that there is a great deal of activity on the roof and in the basement, while this pipework is being put in place. The plant itself will be delivered in June and the work should finish in September. But in such a confined space, it is impossible to go any faster without unacceptable disruption. Work in the search room itself has to be carried on outside working hours and at weekends. This work will improve conditions for those who use the search room, including the Registrar-General's staff. We have decided to do this work, despite current public expenditure constraints, because the conditions are so intolerable. My noble friend has made a plea that the Registrar-General should be allowed, on a temporary basis, to move back into a search room in the north block of Somerset House which contains the Fine Rooms.

I hope that my noble friend will not be too disappointed in the next part of my speech. Your Lordships will recall that a previous government decided firmly that the north block should not be used for office purposes. That is why the Registrar-General went to St. Catherine's House in 1973. Since then, a number of exhibitions have been held, and later this year the Royal Academy is expected to mount an exhibition to mark the bicentenary of the first summer exhibition. A valuable collection will be on display. The Department of the Environment has looked carefully at the possibility of the Registrar-General and the exhibitions "cohabiting", but there are severe practical difficulties.

The west search room has to be used for a cloak-room during exhibitions because the east staircase is undergoing extensive repairs and the public cannot go up it. The east search room is used for unpacking and packing exhibits because the only lift is on that side of the building. It would be impractical to unpack in the west search room and carry exhibits across the only road access to Somerset House and through an east search room, full of people, to the lift. Nor is it practical to store packaging in a room used also as a cloakroom. But the major objection is one of security. These exhibits are each worth many thousands of pounds. The summer exhibits might be worth something in the region of £25 million. We could not risk taking these works of art to a building to which any member of the public has access. I am not including my noble friend; I know that he has access to it at any time.

Even if we did agree, we would be going back on what I thought was a firm desire of Members on all sides of this House, and in the other place, that these rooms should be used for the purposes for which they were intended. There are now firm possibilities that the suite might be used for a permanent exhibition. Desirable though genealogy is, I do not think that it should stand in the way, even temporarily, of the opening of these unique rooms to the public. It is a matter of balancing one objective against another.

I come to what I regard as the proper solution. My noble friend has reminded us of the legislation that he proposed, the effect of which would have been a transfer of records one hundred or more years old to the Public Records Office. Our practical reaction to this would be to move the old records to a vacant building adjacent to the present Public Record Office at Kew. The public would be able then to consult the indexes and to examine on microfilm the actual records, which they cannot do at present.

Some might suggest that a solution be found in Central London, but it would be inordinately expensive to extend the current search room or to find alternative premises in the capital, especially when there is an easier solution on the existing Government estate. Unfortunately, this solution is not without cost. I am advised that a certain amount of floor strengthening work in the building would be necessary, and microfilm readers would need to be purchased. The resources for this purpose, if the records were transferred to the Public Record Office, would have to be found by the departments concerned, as my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor explained during the Second Reading of my noble friend's Bill on 3rd July 1979. But discussions are continuing on how this money might be found.

May I end, perhaps not having given a great deal of hope to my noble friend and to the wonderful staff in the General Register Office, by asking my noble friend to bear with us just a little longer. We agree with him that St. Catherine's House ought to be relieved. It is too small. It is attracting a greater number of people every day. We do not think that short term measures are the answer. In particular, we do not think it would be right to use the Somerset House search rooms for this purpose. We will pursue our discussions about financing a scheme at Kew as quickly as possible, remembering that the idea is to take the last one hundred years of records, from 1837 or thereabouts up to about 1937, out of the present conditions and house them at Kew. If that were to be possible, then I am sure that it would be easier to work in the existing premises. We will actively look at other possibilities, but I have to tell my noble friend that at the moment I cannot promise a great deal.


My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, I think he men tioned a period from 1837 to 1937. If we are talking about 100 years of records, up to this year, then I think the relevant year would be 1880.

Viscount LONG

My Lords, I would not argue with my noble friend. He is a greater expert on this than I am.