HL Deb 29 March 1984 vol 450 cc411-7

7.48 p.m.

The Lord Chancellor rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 5th March be approved.

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, I rise to move the Motion of approval standing in my name on the Order Paper. Perhaps I may say that, with permission, I shall speak to the two Motions in my name, but of course the Questions will have to be proposed separately. The new towns Motion has already received the approval of another place. The other place has a slightly different procedure from ours, and the position about the British Rail Motion is that it has been before their Standing Committee but has not yet received Commons approval on the Floor of the House, which I believe is expected on Monday.

The records concern the Commission for the New Towns and the British Railways Board. Neither of these groups falls within the definition of a public record, which is set out in the schedule to the Public Records Act 1958. It has been decided that certain records in each of these bodies should now be treated as public records, and the only way in which this can be achieved under the Act of 1958 is by an Order in Council and that Order in Council has first to be approved in draft by Parliament.

The first draft order concerns the Commission for the New Towns. The records referred to consist partly of the records of the development corporations which were transferred to the Commission prior to their dissolution, and the remainder of the Commission's own records. These are records relating to the development of new towns, and thus are records of an important development in social history and as such, I hope it will be agreed, ought to be clearly preserved as part of our national collection.

It is not intended that this order should cover the records of the new town development corporations themselves since such a requirement would conflict with the discretion conferred on the Secretary of State for the Environment under paragraph 2(1)(a) of Schedule 10 of the 1981 New Towns Act, as to their disposal. In the normal course, a corporation's documents would be transferred to the Commission when the corporation is wound up and then they will then be treated as part of the Commission's present records.

The second motion relates to the records of the British Railways Board which the Board has already transferred or will in future transfer to the Public Record Office. The 1968 Transport Act dealt with the transfer and disposal of historical records and relics belonging to the British Railways Board. These were sent to the National Railway Museum in York. A collection of the records became the responsibility of the Public Record Office, and in 1977 these were deposited at Kew at the office there. But they are not at present in the strict sense public records. Technically they form a private collection, in the control of the Public Record Office. It is desirable for two reasons that they should be made subject to the Public Records Act and public records.

The two reasons are as follow. First, Section 42 of the Copyright Act 1956 exempts the Keeper of the Public Record Office from infringing copyright but only when the records are public records. It therefore follows that there is a technical breach of copyright every time he allows a researcher, with whom these records are extremely popular, to copy them. Secondly, the agreement with the British Railways Board to transfer the records to the Public Record Office was not made under the Public Records Act, and it is desirable that all the records should have the full protection of that Act.

Your Lordships may notice there is one exception provided for in this draft and that relates to the personal records of staff. The proviso in the draft order ensures that personal records do not become public records until they are 75 years old. By that time their sensitivity will have evaporated and they can then become public records in the main collection. I understand that on signing certain undertakings, researchers are in fact allowed access to these records but the undertakings preserve the sensitivity of the records.

There have been I believe some articles and correspondence in several publications recently on the archives of the British Railways Board. This order is not made as a result of that correspondence, and it is not for me to discuss the archives. But I would point out that the effect of this order will be to guarantee the status and preservation, as public records, of many railway records.

When the order was debated in the standing committee in the other Place, my honourable and learned friend the Solicitor General was able to announce the intention of the British Railways Board to set up an advisory panel, and this advisory panel whose composition was disclosed by my right honourable and learned friend will ensure that the remainder of the archives are disposed of among those organisations which have an interest in their preserva-tion. I hope in fact that the advisory panel will be able to prevent some of the matters for criticism which have been publicly ventilated. With that explanation, I hope your Lordships will agree that these orders are uncontentious. I ask the House to approve them accordingly. I beg to move the first of the two motions standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 5th March be approved.—[The Lord Chancellor.]

Lord Teviot

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble and learned friend for moving these orders. On the order regarding new towns I have nothing to say but praise. Railway records, however, is a subject that has raised some considerable comment, concern and even disquiet in the press and elsewhere recently. I have done my humble best to understand the complexities of the question and will therefore put forward a view as to how I see the situation as it stands at the moment, and make some suggestions as to how this problem can be put right in the future.

This order, as my noble and learned friend has said, formalises arrangements already in practice, which have been made by the British Railways Board and the Public Record Office. I am afraid I consider it regrettable that legislation does not go far enough as I feel it would have been desirable if British Railways had become a statutory record producing body under Section 3 of the Public Records Act, in the same way as the National Coal Board and the Civil Aviation Authority. I, too, have read with much interest the debate in the Standing Committee in the other place on this order. Many valid points were made which although I may touch on and develop I will not repeat in depth. The purpose of my intervention here is to ouline the practical implementation of some of the proposals as well as outlining some of their weaknesses.

I shall begin by referring to the importance of the advisory panel as proposed by the British Railways Board through my right honourable and learned friend the Solicitor General and indeed my noble and learned friend this evening.

In the absence of statutory legislation, this advisory panel will play a crucial role. Therefore I should like to put forward certain criteria for ensuring that it can fulfil its public role effectively. First, I urge the need for an early starting date in order to allay the obvious public concern. Secondly, I consider it would be important for an independent chairman to be appointed to this panel who can have the services of an independent secretariat. Thirdly, this advisory panel must not be confined to considering minor historical records as already stated. Indeed, it must be seen to have the role of a watchdog over this whole process of securing our national railway heritage in the form of the paper records. In mentioning paper records, I also include photographs and other such material.

Fourthly, I should like to elaborate on the membership. The British Railways Board have suggested a number of obvious bodies to be represented which are acceptable, but I notice there is nobody specifically representing the paper record of railway history. The fifth point—and your Lordships will be pleased to know that there is only one more after this—is that this panel publish an annual report of its proceedings with copies to be deposited in the Libraries of both Houses of Parliament.

My final point is that this advisory panel clearly needs a basis of information so that it can make a constructive decision on this matter. I should like to suggest that the investigation, which was begun privately by Dr. Peter Lewis and Mr. David Challis must continue with the sanction of the British Railways Board and the Lord Chancellor's Office to provide this information. So far, this investigation has yielded very helpful replies from both the Public Record Office and the Scottish Record Office. I apologise to my noble and learned friend for not giving him prior notice of these matters and appreciate that it would be impossible to reply to them today. But I should be grateful if he could write to me after he has considered these proposals fully.

I do not in any way intend to attack the British Railways Board for the handling of this matter. I must say I was most grateful for their invitation to me to go and see them. The meeting was most useful. Equally, the Public Record Office again has been most helpful. Nonetheless, it is quite clear from these discussions, and others that I have had with interested parties, that the current situation and the situation that will persist, shows that this order has serious deficiencies that leave me with a feeling of concern.

First, the identification of items for potential disposal. Because the initial selection of these items can be made by staff who cannot be expected to have an adequate knowledge of railway history this process can lead to material not being made available for Public Record Office inspection. Secondly, the current situation whereby the Public Record Office makes a selection of material that is offered does not allow for it to recommend material which it does not require to be sent to public repositories except at the National Railway Museum at York.

May I suggest that any new arrangements must give the PRO authority to advise these other public repositories that material suitable for them is being disposed of. For example, the Welsh Industrial and Maritime Museum—about which I am sure we will hear from the noble and learned Lord opposite—gives information to part of the National Museum of Wales but does not at present have any right to be offered material relevant to the very involved history of Welsh railways. Items that would be of considerable interest to local record offices are currently to be found on the shelves of Collector's Corner at Euston, and I beg leave to suggest that the sale of paper records should be stopped forthwith at this establishment until such time as the advisory panel can make a full reappraisal of the contents there.

Finally, I appreciate that I have hurled a lot of "meat" at my noble and learned friend at short notice, and I hope that he will forgive me for doing so. Also I hope that I am in order in making other comments. I should like to express my sympathy with my noble and learned friend and the staff of the Public Record Office over the sad situation at Kew. I feel that although it is inconvenient for many members of the public, the office should be reopened later rather than sooner and not until all the authorities are satisfied that the problems of the building are solved.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, I rise to support the orders that are being moved and to express our gratitude that they have come forward. But I am bound to say that I share the concern and anxieties about the practical implication of what is intended expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, who is a tiger in these matters. My mind goes back to long ago and I recall the noble Lord's role over the years; it is good to know he is still active in this way.

The maintenance of public records and records such as those relating to the new towns and to railways old and new is a very important part of the fabric of our social history, and it is a good thing that probably there is more concern about the maintenance of public records now than there has ever been. To my mind that is a mark of maturity in our development.

I think that the first order, relating to new towns, is a very valuable one. My own recollection of new towns is that a large number of my constituents in West Ham and the East of London were given shelter and a new hope of life there from the squalour and difficulties that followed the Blitz and years of neglect in the poorer parts of our cities; that was, I fear, part of the pattern of our civilisation. So it is good that those records are available for the social historian and for the rest of us.

As to the second order—the Public Records (British Railways Board) Order—I hope that I shall not be accused of mere provincialism if I indicate, as the noble and learned Lord has suspected would be the case, that my interest is particularly in the records of Welsh railways. I am happy to be involved with the Welsh Industrial and Maritime Museum in Cardiff. It is a most admirable museum, which I commend to the public, and its mandate is to record and, wherever possible, to preserve the industrial and maritime history of Wales. I have had anxious correspondence from the curator, Dr. Geraint Jenkins, in regard to the position which, at any rate up until now, has existed. He states, for instance, that the Public Record Office will accept only a representative 10 per cent. of the records in a collection which it has been offered. He suggests that, so far as railway records are concerned, the remaining 90 per cent. may be offered by the British Railways Board to the National Railway Museum in York, or to the commercial outlet, Collector's Corner, at Euston, where they may be sold to the general public, or they may be otherwise disposed of or destroyed. But at any rate it is reassuring to know from the responses of the board to those anxieties that there is at least an awareness of the existence of the records. How far the new machinery will be effective we shall have to see.

The noble Lord, Lord Teviot, certainly suggested— to use an unattractive but useful phrase, the "beefing up" of the advisory panel in various ways. I hope that consideration will be given to that—and I suspect that it can be done administratively without the need of legislation—in order to be sure that the records of this fascinating part of our history may become available to students and members of the general public alike.

There is of course a real enthusiasm for railways, especially for the good old days of the steam engine, and for the Great Western Railway, on which my noble friend Lord Elystan-Morgan and I depended so many times, over so many years. There is a great fascination, not only in boyhood but in later life, for what has gone on in railways, for their creators, and for the laying down of the railways. Accordingly, I hope that the practical points that the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, raised will be given serious consideration. I agree with him that at this hour and without notice it is a little unreasonable to expect the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, fascinated as he, too, is by railways, to give us a full explanation and account. But there is anxiety in Wales, which I hope will be allayed sooner rather than later.

8.6 p.m.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I should like to thank both my noble friend and the noble and learned Lord for the gracious way in which these Motions have been entertained. I should particularly like to thank my noble friend for the reference to the unhappy state of the present office in Kew, which is not of the making of the staff, nor indeed of the Lord Chancellor, and which has caused me very great unhappiness and concern. I shall of course take advice on the subject, but it is certainly not my intention to let people in—either the staff or the public—until it is safe. Apparently the microbes are stacked up somewhere in the water supply and until it is safe I really do not think that I can do anything other than keep it shut; but I shall take advice about that.

As regards the railways, the records of the railways are of course a very important part of our national history, but they are quite different from the records of central government in this way. Some of them have a peculiarly local historical orientation; some of them are technical. It is a much more heterogeneous collection than the ordinary items which go into the PRO, and as I recounted rather briefly in my opening speech, the original idea was to send them all to York. It was only after a while that people came to realise that there were quite unique and nationally important records which had to be placed in Kew in order to meet the very natural national interest in them.

There is no possibility at all of the Lord Chancellor being in a position to sort out these records. That I think will be understood. Indeed, as the noble and learned Lord probably knows from his experience, the position of the Lord Chancellor in relation to public records is a singularly embarrassing one. He does not himself select the 1 per cent. of the public records which are preserved. He does, of course, close them for determinate periods of time. He tries to stop them from being clawed back, so far as he can, but he has only limited powers to do so; and in the meantime he does his best. Whether he was ever the ideal person to be in charge of the Public Record Office, his position there was consecrated by the report of the Wilson Committee. I do not think that I can go behind them this evening, at any rate.

The truth is that I am the guardian of the national archive. There is a constant coming and going between various places of disposal where primarily local records are released from the public records by my permission. There is equally the cross-current of local records which it has finally been decided are public records—the class of thing with which we are really dealing this evening.

It is, I think, quite interesting that these are, I believe, the only Orders in Council which have ever been put forward under the Act, although I may be wrong about that. At all events, I shall try carefully to see that what my noble friend said about the composition of the advisory panel, which is not my personal responsibility or my departmental responsibility, is brought to the attention of the British Railways Board and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport. I shall try to see that the noble and learned Lord's anxiety about the Welsh records is considered very carefully by those responsible. I shall see whether, in two letters, I can allay some of their anxieties, and I thank them for their useful suggestions. With that, I beg to move.