HL Deb 14 July 1994 vol 556 cc2027-41

7.16 p.m.

Lord Renton rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what proposals they have for the future of county archive offices, in the reorganisation of local government in England.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in tabling this Unstarred Question, I am genuinely seeking information about the Government's attitude rather than arguing what should be done in the various changes that may be made.

The Local Government Commission has proposed that there should be unitary authorities in almost every county but, in doing so, for example in the case of the big new county of Cambridgeshire, it states: the Commission expects the new authorities to work together closely to ensure that specialist expertise is not unnecessarily broken up and that the existing levels of efficiency and effectiveness in the provision of relatively small-scale but important functions such as … archive provision … are maintained".

Let us consider how county archive and record offices operate at present. In most of the larger historic counties —most of them, but I name particularly Kent and Hampshire —the present arrangements are admirable. They not only have splendid arrangements for keeping voluminous collections of ancient documents, but the archives are well housed in ample buildings, conserved in accordance with modern scientific skills, and are made accessible to the public. The situation is different in some other large counties where the custody is decentralised, as in Cumbria where records are kept in four different places but where the records management and conservation skills are concentrated in Carlisle.

A different situation arises in modern Cambridgeshire, which I happen to know so well, where in the past 30 years four small historic counties which, frankly, did not have much in common historically although adjoining, were formed into one big county. Theoretically, the archives are under one administration, but they are kept in more than two separate places in Cambridge and Huntingdon, where they are stored in buildings which are too small. Indeed, because of the overcrowding in the local office, many of the Huntingdon archives have to be stored in another building eight miles away to which the public do not have access so the records have to be brought to the office if somebody should want to see them. I understand that the joint arrangements (which were made under the aegis of the former metropolitan counties where there was an amalgamation of several boroughs each with its own archive) did not work well. I mention that in passing.

Having regard to the diversity that now prevails, it is obvious that, when unitary authorities are established —and let us assume that, broadly, the recommendations of the Boundary Commission will be accepted by Parliament, no one solution will be suitable for everywhere in England. Decisions will have to vary with local circumstances. I wish to stress that they must vary with local circumstances.

Five noble Lords who cannot be here tonight have asked me to mention their interest in the future of our record offices and have asked me to make representations on their behalf. However, the time limit on the debate prevents that. I am delighted that no less than eight noble Lords, with their particular knowledge and expertise, have decided to speak in this debate and I look forward to hearing their speeches.

One of those who cannot be present tonight, is the noble Viscount, Lord Falmouth, Her Majesty's Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall, who of course is Custos Rotulorum there. Many Members of your Lordships' House are Lords Lieutenant, and each is Custos Rotulorum. Some are more active in that capacity than others. In my opinion, each should be consulted before any new arrangements are made.

The second noble Lord who cannot be here tonight is the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning. He is now aged 95 and in possession of his faculties to a most remarkable extent. He was chairman of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts and he welcomes this debate. It is also welcomed by my noble friend Lord Rippon of Hexham and my noble friend Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, who is Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge. Naturally, he is anxious about archaeological records, which are indeed important. My noble friend Lord Inglewood cannot be here but he told me what I have already revealed about the archives in Cumbria.

In conclusion, I wish to stress that all parts of England are amazingly rich in ancient documents, which are a fundamental part of our heritage. We have a duty, and the Government have a duty, to ensure that they are carefully conserved, fully recorded and made accessible. That cannot be done without adequate financial resources, suitable buildings, sound administration and expert staff. I trust that my noble friend Lord St. Davids, who I am pleased to say will be replying to this debate, will assure us of the Government's determination to enable success to be achieved in this vital matter.

7.24 p.m.

Lord Montagu of Beaulieu

My Lords, when I spoke in an earlier debate on the Local Government Commission, I expressed my anxiety as a former chairman of English Heritage and former president of the Museums Association about the effect which the breaking up of traditional rural counties will have on the heritage, conservation and related areas such as libraries, museums, support for the arts and archives. I am delighted, therefore, that the noble Lord, Lord Renton, has given us the opportunity tonight to debate in more detail the perceived threat—I use the word "percieved"—that these projected changes pose to our national archive services.

It is a service that has grown from small beginnings over the past 50 years. It provides high quality storage and display which will ensure that this vital raw material of our history will survive for the future. One must not forget that it also provides facilities and help for the growing number of people who want to use the material for research.

It is a local service which meets local needs. It is necessarily a small service and to make it smaller—to split up collections which have been carefully and zealously brought together over the centuries and to share them out, as sharing out remains, among the new unitary authorities—ought to be, and I am sure is, unthinkable. I do not believe that it is part of the Government's policy.

The reasons are obvious. It is a service in which there is great local pride. That is why it has flourished and been cherished and supported especially by gifts of archive material. Like so many other valued local government services, it needs to be delivered at the strategic level that our counties can provide. In Hampshire, for instance, we are very proud to have a fine, purpose-built new record office which was opened by Her Majesty the Queen last November. Of course, we in Hampshire believe that it is the best in the country. But Hampshire is by no means alone in making such provision. In recent years, two of our neighbouring counties, West Sussex and Dorset, have also opened new record offices. There are many others elsewhere in the country. Such development would not happen if these services were held together only by voluntary joint arrangements, which the Government apparently favour under the projected new regimes.

Sadly, new archive centres would be way down at the bottom of any priority list for new capital expenditure or, indeed, annual revenue expenditure. Archive services are naturally a service for counties but also for the nation and indeed the world. For instance, in Hampshire, men and women have played a significant part in the world's affairs and our records are in Hampshire where they should be. We also have the papers of two high-ranking 18th century diplomats and an Irish Archbishop, manuscripts of early Handel operas and also, I am sure your Lordships will be delighted to hear, the papers of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning. Those records are used by historians the world over and the new building also houses a film and sound archive.

County archive services have another important function. Whereas at Beaulieu we look after our own archives, the Hampshire Archives Trust gives us help and advice and makes services available to education.

One of the options put forward by the Local Government Commission for Hampshire is that it should be divided into seven unitary authorities. There is anxiety about what will happen to this service if its future depends on the voluntary co-operation of seven independent bodies. What will happen in Lancashire, where the commission's preferred option is eight unitary authorities? Can anyone imagine eight unitary authorities volunteering, let alone agreeing, to share costs equally? The administration would be a nightmare.

The problem at the moment is that we lack any clear government lead, with the result that the archive services are badly demoralised about their future. If they an; over-reacting, perhaps one cannot entirely blame them. I hope that tonight the Government will give some assurance that they will consider building in proper, watertight safeguards for the continuation of these and other vital services at the time of reorganisation.

Surely a nation must be judged on how it conserves its archives. Our future depends on our past and we must make sure that it is always available.

7.28 p.m.

The Marquess of Hertford

My Lords, I share my noble friend's anxiety about the future of county archive offices and the services that they render not only to their counties or local districts but to historians from all over the world. I do not claim to know about the national scene but from recent personal experience I know about the County Record Office in Warwick. My family archives happen to be there. They have been carefully and efficiently sorted out, put in order and listed and preserved for posterity and for anyone who wishes to study them for use in historical research. I hate to think what might have happened to them had they been left in boxes in a cupboard in my estate office.

When I started using the record office, I was surprised by the large number of other people making use of the services of the admirable staff who are there. I suppose that I used to think that all those archives just sat there doing nothing, gathering dust; but not at all. The record office is a busy place with a busy and highly efficient staff providing an admirable service to all sorts of members of the public. Their work is of local, national and international importance and I hope sincerely that it will continue.

7.30 p.m.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Montagu of Beaulieu referred to the 50 years of development of county record offices. My memory of using a county record office goes back a little more than 50 years. I remember in—it must have been—1936 examining some of the records in Chester Castle which was then the record office for the county of Cheshire. My chief memory is the amount of dust that got into my lungs and the time it took me to recover from that piece of research.

Since then, a great deal has happened. There is now more professional expertise on the conservation, preservation and presentation of archives and above all, as has been mentioned by the noble Marquess, the deposit in county record offices of an increasing number of records which are, by their nature, not part of the county's own administrative history but which belong to families and other organisations within the geographical boundaries of the county. Therefore, one must think of county archive offices today as scenes of a great deal of activity. Students come to them from all over the world and they require professional guidance.

There is one particular activity which I have been asked to mention to your Lordships because it is of very great importance; that is, the development and further compilation of The Victoria History of the Counties of England. That has necessarily and naturally been done largely in the counties themselves and the obvious place for that work to be done has been in the county record offices.

There is certainly anxiety on the part of the editor of The Victoria History of the Counties of England that because of the uncertainties that have been referred to about the way in which county records are in future to be looked after and financed, the counties may find affording houseroom and assistance to that particular project something which is more difficult to contemplate. I understand from the editor that a number of counties have already indicated that their plans for the future are not clear because of the uncertainties to which the noble Lord, Lord Renton, refers in the Question.

Of course, it is not the case that anyone suggests seriously breaking up the archives, even if the counties are divided into separate administrative units. But the matter still seems to require a degree of certainty before those changes come into operation. One could not wait for six months, a year or two years while districts, which will have many other functions devolved to them, make up their minds as to how they finance and organise the archives. We cannot possibly allow that to happen.

The question for Her Majesty's Government—and it is phrasing the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Renton, differently—is whether there is a government policy in that regard and whether there will be government suggestions to the new authorities as to how they discharge that particular responsibility. That seems to me to be a matter on which your Lordships' House has already expressed its concern and I do not doubt that the remaining speakers in the debate will echo that very real concern for one of the major aspects of our cultural heritage.

7.35 p.m.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

My Lords, concern about archives has been expressed very ably by my noble friends Lord Renton and Lord Montagu. I share that concern because like my noble friend Lord Hertford, I too come from Warwickshire. The proposals from the local commission have been published and I note that there is an expectation that the archive services will be maintained intact.

We have heard this evening how popular archive services are becoming and how much greater is their use. In view of the service provided, I believe that there should be more than mere expectation. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that there will be something more than expectation or the hope that unitary authorities will maintain a county-wide archive service; that provisions will be made which have real teeth in the shape of a statutory requirement that unitary authorities will maintain a county-wide service or that there should be an enforceable joint arrangement so that revenue and capital funding are both ensured for the future.

After all, archives are probably rather vulnerable. They do not immediately spring to the top of the list of priorities in the minds of electors or councillors. Other matters may seem to be more important or more immediate and they are likely to grab their attention. People may ask, "What is an archivist or a librarian less here and there? A day when the archives are closed does not really matter". But I remind your Lordships that death by a thousand cuts is still death. The Government should be aware of that anxiety. I hope that they will be able to allay our fears about the future of what everyone agrees is a national treasure.

7.37 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I am deeply grateful, as are all those who have spoken, to my noble friend Lord Renton for raising this important issue.

I speak as the chairman of the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England which, since 1989, has been charged by the Government, under our Royal Warrant, with exercising the lead role for sites and monuments records in England on behalf of our sponsoring department, the Department of National Heritage. That enables the work of the SMRs and the Royal Commission's own national monument record to be more effectively co-ordinated. On the eve of the local government reorganisation, the Royal Commission accordingly carried out a detailed review of the ways in which the SMRs were currently organised and reviewed the way in which they and we could best develop to meet the needs of the future.

Therefore, I strongly urge that all new unitary authorities, however they may be devised, should be required to discuss their plans for the support and delivery of heritage services with both the Royal Commission, as the national lead body for SMRs, and with English Heritage, whose interest my noble friend Lord Montagu has already identified, as the Government's adviser on the management of the historic environment.

As has already been said, sites and monuments records are a special kind of archive. They were set up with the support of English Heritage and the Government primarily to allow information and advice about archaeological sites to be available to the local authority planning system; but also —and it is most important also—as an educational and cultural resource. Those SMRs are small, specialised units maintained by county councils. If the county system is abolished or radically restructured, the sites and monuments records will be especially vulnerable to disruption and above all, to underfunding.

Like other noble Lords I am concerned about the risks of fragmentation and also about the whole issue of funding. At present, local authorities maintain the SMRs voluntarily under government advice. Their loss would have serious consequences for the historic environment and for the nation's heritage policy. The maintenance of sites and monuments records should constitute a formally recognised responsibility of every county or unitary planning authority in England. The cost of maintaining that responsibility should be included in, and specific provision made within, the standard spending assessment of any such local authority.

The records of sites and monuments and their future are of importance. Information about archaeological sites and historic buildings must continue to be freely accessible at both local and national level. We all have an interest in our past and it is very much part of our future. I should like to take this opportunity to support what my noble friend Lord Beloff said about The Victoria County histories. We feel most strongly that that is something which needs special support, and that it is a matter of concern. I was glad, but not surprised, to hear of the interest and support for my noble friend's Question on the part of my most distinguished predecessor the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will be able to give him and us constructive support.

7.40 p.m.

Viscount De L'Isle

My Lords, I too am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Renton for giving us the opportunity to discuss the matter this evening. Perhaps I should preface my remarks by declaring an interest as a co-opted member of the Kent Archives Advisory Committee and as a private depositor with the Centre for Kentish Studies, which is in fact the Kent Archives Office.

I believe that there is broad support for the view that an archive service should not be fragmented in any reorganisation resulting from the recommendations of the Local Government Commission and the Government's subsequent implementation of them. However, as many noble Lords have said, there is at present no guarantee that that protection will be secured as the Government intend to rely on voluntary arrangements between authorities.

Experience gained from the outcome of the metropolitan counties reorganisation shows that reliance on such voluntary arrangements is dangerous. Joint management committees quickly break down and funding is reallocated elsewhere, resulting in the loss of an important service and of irreplaceable archive material. To repeat that folly would be negligent in the extreme.

I turn now specifically to the Commissioners' draft recommendations for Kent, which, I suspect, were run off on the same word processor as those for Cambridge. They refer to the expectation that the two proposed unitary authorities of North West Kent and Medway would, work together with neighbouring districts and the County Council, to ensure that specialist expertise is not broken up and that existing levels of efficiency and effectiveness in the provision of relatively small scale but important functions such as ✶ archives provision are maintained". How will that be achieved?

Whatever the aspirations and hopes of the authorities for co-operation, can they really guarantee that the same level of service will be available across their whole joint area? Regrettably, the answer to that question must be no. There can be no such assurance with the three of the four options on offer, which will, in varying degrees, leave some areas of the county without easy access to an established archive office. That must be of concern to the many thousands who use the archive service for academic research and the growing band of amateur genealogists who, to coin a phrase, are and will be "digging up their roots" in churchyards, parish registers and archive offices across the county, both now and in the future.

The only option which does offer assurance that services will be maintained is the current two-tier system county wide, which will leave in place the pattern of service and both formal and informal partnerships and agreements which have stood the test of time.

The expertise available to public bodies, private owners and users all over Kent is considerable. Further, the current archive office has invested heavily in environmentally-controlled accommodation, the expansion of facilities for public access and the development of plans for computerisation. Here perhaps I should pay tribute to the forward thinking of the last three county archivists—a tribute which I am sure could be repeated many times in other counties across the country—who have, with the support of their elected members, developed a first-class service over a period of 25 years.

I urge the Commission and the Government to think very carefully before recommending changes which do not fully recognise the strengths of the current county-based system. They have been responsive to the need of both depositors and researchers, while concurrently earning the trust and support of private owners. There is too much at stake to leave the future safety of such valuable services to the capricious whims of voluntary arrangements.

For Kent, speaking as a private depositor of an archive collection which is consulted regularly by academics from all over the world, I urge the commission to keep in mind its own concerns for archives and to realise that the only sure option for Kent archives is the status quo.

7.45 p.m.

Earl Russell

My Lords, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Renton, for introducing the Question, I am speaking for every historian I know at every level on either side of the Atlantic and of the Pacific. A country's sense of its own identity depends extremely heavily on its own historical memory. I did not realise quite how much that was so, until I went to live for a while in the United States which was once described as the only country in the world in which the majority of the population is homesick.

County record offices were first proposed in Parliament in 1614. It takes quite a long time to get an idea through to fruition, but in recent years this one has come to fruition. It is of very great value. Moving is not good for records. The Custos Rotulorum in times gone by used to be what his name actually says: he used to have physical custody of the records. On occasion, when the Custos Rotulorum was dismissed, his successor used to send along a cart to collect the records. Naturally, that sort of thing was not particularly good for preservation.

There is also a very strong case for preserving the integrity of collections. I listened with interest to the noble Viscount, Lord De L'Isle and Dudley on the integrity of the Kent record office where I have worked many times. I agree with everything that he said. Further, I thought that dividing his own family collection—which I have been extremely grateful to read—would be a gross act of vandalism and, indeed, almost impossible. There would also be a great problem as regards separating the documents from the catalogues. For example, could we imagine running this House with the Public Bill Office in Glasgow and the Printed Paper Office in Edinburgh? I believe that that would cause quite considerable confusion, and the parallel is not overstated.

The provenance of records also tells us something quite important about them on occasion. It is also worth remembering that the historic unit for most of English government, society and administration has for a very long time been the county. I am reminded of the story of Arthur Balfour at a dinner party. The lady next to him observed in a stage whisper, "The gentleman next door has put his hand on my knee and I can't make him let go". Arthur Balfour asked, "How long has it been there?" She replied, "Since the fish". "Well then", he said, "I'd let it stay there".

The English counties have been gathering records for a thousand years. That is a good deal longer than, "since the fish". Our counties are like Burke's trees: they have grown. One cannot imagine splitting up estate collections and having the estate documents in one place with the Quarter Sessions records in another. The task of dividing Quarter Sessions records between different districts really makes one's mind boggle.

The Minister may say that the matter should be left to the authorities concerned. In my experience—some of it bitter—whenever one leaves to local authorities the job of funding anything that happens outside their boundaries, one runs into difficulties. The standard of many local authorities in the care of their archives could not be improved upon. For example, I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, said about Hampshire, where I have spent many happy days.

However, it is difficult to persuade one's local electors to fund things outside the boundary of the local authority area. It goes against the very nature of the local authority. If there is to be a proper funding of records in their historic units—which I believe is the only way they can appropriately be kept—we must have a clear government directive because otherwise they will not be funded. If they are not funded, our Ph.Ds will not be completed—a matter which causes the Government enough distress. Foreign postgraduates will not come here in the numbers in which at present they do, and that will be a loss to our balance of payments, to our revenues, and to our international reputation. In fact, it will be a vast collection of losses simply for not bothering to think about it. That would be a very great pity.

7.51 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Renton, was, I am sure, absolutely right to raise the issue of archives tonight. I think we all accept that reorganisation of local government is a worrying time for all the staff, though some of their worries could perhaps have been alleviated if the Staff Commission had been more constructive. However, I must say, as an archive-trained historian myself and also as someone from local government, that I believe some of the fears we have heard expressed tonight, are overstated and exaggerated. There is no question of historic archive material being splintered and dispersed, nor the staff who will conserve it. I do not know any body, either the Government or the Local Government Commission, the Audit Commission, the Association of District Councils or any district authority, which is calling for that. The depositors would not permit it, nor do the users and citizens want it. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, is right, that would be vandalism were it to happen. However, no one is proposing that, which is why I believe some of the debate tonight has perhaps missed the issues.

What is more, no new unitary authority could afford a new archive office with its storage and conservation facilities, at a cost of about £2 million a building, for its specialist facilities. Collections will be kept up and collections will be kept together, save perhaps only for those new records of management that are essential tools for the legal and planning departments of local authorities to which new authorities will require access, perhaps by new technology.

Our historic archives will remain in one site— generally the county town, its present home—as now. As for the service, I should describe what currently happens in Norfolk. Norwich and Norfolk ran a joint archive service until 1974. When the county borough lost its status and became a district council, there was thereafter a joint archives committee between the county council and the seven districts. After reorganisation—the preferred option, we trust, will be the five unitary districts referred to today —nothing, but nothing, will change. It will be a case of the same place, the same documents, the same staff, the same joint arrangements, the same level of service, the same councillors and almost certainly the same budget, because so much of the work of archives—I think perhaps this has not been explored—is statutory because it is based on the statutory conservation of local authority, NHS and court records. Therefore, across the shire counties of England there will, I suspect, be either joint arrangements or lead authorities which, as the noble Lord, Lord Renton, said, will be adopted according to which best suits local circumstances.

There is nothing new about that. There are already numerous joint arrangements in existence now which work and work well. They work well between district and district on, for example, specialised housing needs, or between districts and counties on museums, airports, economic development or the arts, or between county and county, for example on secure units for children. As regards a local authority buying a service from a lead authority, as the Audit Commission has said, that is no different from that same local authority buying it from a private body, which is what local authorities are now required to do under compulsory competitive tendering and under voluntary arrangements. Local authorities do that now. Where they are based on a willing partnership between equal authorities, joint arrangements and lead authority arrangements work well and work now.

Therefore, what is the problem? If it is not that of a dispersal of material, because that will not happen, and if, because they already work well and are satisfactory, it is not a problem of devising new arrangements that will be unsatisfactory, what is the issue? I believe that the worries focus on finance. But again, are those worries realistic? Most county archive services have a small budget. My own service has £300,000. I have been looking at the CIPFA statistics and that figure is not out of line with the usual county archival budget. Because it is a small budget and because most of the work—perhaps 90 per cent. of the existing collection —is statutory and therefore predictable as regards workload, there is little difference between a high budget and a low budget in archive work. I believe that that is a crucial point, because if there is little difference between a high budget and a low budget there will not be much room for argument, for disagreement, for political divide, because there will not be much to disagree about. Relative harmony prevails, except of course when we talk about the acquisition of a family's papers. However, there, of course, the debate will be antiquarian rather than financial.

I believe this is a worrying time for staff and I understand those fears, exaggerated though I believe them to be. That is why, like other noble Lords, I would warmly commend proposals which have been aired by the Association of District Councils; namely, that the final year of the county council's budget—plus inflation —should be projected into the first two years of reorganisation and then be apportioned on a population basis, and that thereafter we should move into five or 10-year management agreements such as we have seen in many parts of the country with regard to the museums service. I personally would welcome—I am sure local authorities would—government guidance to that effect.

In conclusion, we should remind ourselves that all new authorities are voluntarily entering a network of joint arrangements and lead authority arrangements. Different authorities will be lead authorities for different services. All will have an interest in locking each other into agreed and stable policies and budgets—joint arrangements for the future. Of all those joint services, archives, I would suggest, are the least tendentious, the least problematical, the least political and the least divisive. There really should not be a threat, because individual local authorities cannot opt out even if they should wish to, and they do not wish to do so.

I suggest to noble Lords that the real threat to quality local government services is not reorganisation but the cutting and capping of local government itself by central government. I hope that, following today's debate, not only may we receive guidance from central government to local authorities on budgetary processes, but that the archive world itself may devote some of its attention to encouraging central government to recognise that local government needs the finance it should have to protect and preserve the services we are all entitled to ask for.

7.58 p.m.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, I should like to thank your Lordships for your interesting contributions to this debate, and especially my noble friend Lord Renton, who has given us the opportunity tonight to discuss this important subject. I also thank my noble friend for giving me prior notice of a number of issues which he wished to raise. I hope that in my reply I will be able to answer them fully.

The value and quality of local archive collections are widely recognised. The Government are firmly of the view that these collections have, and will continue to have, a significant role to play in the lives of our local communities. We can look with gratitude to the late Lord Ridley of Liddlesdale for the current vibrant health of the local archive services. It was he who, in 1962, introduced a Private Member's Bill which became the Local Government (Records) Act. That Act places beyond doubt the power of local authorities to rescue, preserve and make available the local archives of England and Wales.

Under the 1962 Act, county councils, London boroughs and metropolitan districts, together with certain district councils designated by order, have a power to buy, or accept as gifts or on deposit, other records of local interests, including, for example, family records. It was that Act which gave statutory foundation to the county and city record offices which were already established, and it has been the cornerstone of their development over the past 30 years. More than £20 million is now spent each year on providing county record offices, at an average cost per head of the population of just 50 pence.

County record offices do, of course, contain not only archives of local interest, but also authorities' own records. All authorities have a duty under the Local Government Act 1972 to make proper arrangements for the custody of their own records and documents. I should like to reassure my noble friend Lord Renton that in no way is that duty changed.

How authorities choose to exercise their powers is, of course, a matter for them. The Government have never sought to prescribe the level of funding, the organisation of archive services in relation to other local authority services, or any other aspect of the service, such as access arrangements and conversion to other formats. These are matters for which an individual authority is answerable to its electorate and its local auditor.

There is no question that the general standards of storage, conservation, cataloguing and accessibility to the public have improved steadily over the years. We must all be grateful to local authorities for the crucial role they have played in the preservation of the country's archival heritage. Many of the items held are unique, irreplaceable and widely consulted. The Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts advises that the present county record offices care for about one-third of all manuscript collections in publicly funded reposito-ries, amounting to about 300,000 metres of shelving in all. Of those holdings, about 30 per cent. are authorities' own administrative records, and 60 per cent. have been given or lent by private owners. My noble friend Lord Hertford referred to the valuable work which local archive services have undertaken in preserving his family records. The work which archive services have done to preserve such records is widely recognised and will continue.

We are fully aware of the importance of archives, and the valuable, and much valued, services provided by the county record offices and other local government managed archive collections. The establishment of the Department of National Heritage in 1992 demonstrates our commitment to the preservation, promotion and profitable use of our heritage. Archives, which contain the primary records of our past, are the very essence of that heritage.

At present, central government policy responsibility for matters covered by local government Acts rests in England with the Department of the Environment. But public libraries and museums come within the ambit of the Department of National Heritage, while the provision of local information (including local historical information) is an essential and integral part of the core library service, and museums also often have archive collections. The two departments work closely together, but we are presently considering the case for transferring responsibility for policy on local records to the Department of National Heritage.

Many noble Lords have expressed their anxiety about the future arrangements for administering county record offices and archive collections. Those concerns embrace the implications of the reorganisation of local government for standards of storage, conditions of public access, the risk of duplication of specialist services and even the possible splitting of collections of archives, many of which relate to the whole of a county. We are well aware, too, of similar concerns among archivists and their professional associations, local history and family history groups and individual members of the public.

We have listened very carefully to those wholly understandable concerns, and we are adopting a course of action which I believe will meet them. We have given a great deal of thought to this matter, and, as I shall explain, our proposals are intended to ensure that the quality of archive services will be maintained, and indeed improved, as a result of the forthcoming changes to local government structure in England. I said "improved". There will undoubtedly be opportunities in the future to consider the more widespread use of new technologies—for example, microforms, photocopies and optical discs—to make unique material more immediately accessible to people at a local level.

My noble friend Lord Hertford referred to the valuable work which local archive services have undertaken in preserving his family records. The work which archive services have done to preserve such records is widely recognised and will continue.

My noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke raised the question of the resources which local authorities decide to devote to archives. There is no reason to believe that new authorities will take less seriously their obligations for archives than do existing authorities.

My noble friend's Question relates to the local government review. The purpose of the review is to secure convenient and effective local government which takes account of community identities. There is no national blueprint. Decisions will be based on what is most appropriate for each area. To respond to a point raised by my noble friend Lord Renton, the Government have said that Lords Lieutenant will be consulted before any decisions are made about their counties. We have not ruled out two-tier structures, though we believe that unitary authorities can improve accountability, cut out duplication of services and improve cost effectiveness.

My noble friend Lord De L'Isle referred to the draft recommendations for Kent. It would not be right for the Government to comment at this stage on the commission's independent review. However, I hope that my noble friend will take the opportunity of the current consultation to make his views known to the commission.

We recognised at an early stage of the local government review process that special attention needed to be given to the archives function of local authorities. Particular points for attention are the need to maintain the assets themselves; the need to preserve existing specialist advisory services, and the need to devise effective arrangements to take the service forward.

Noble Lords will be aware that the general principle is that, where unitary authorities are established, they will be responsible for all relevant local functions, with the exception of law and order and fire services. However, the guidance to the Local Government Commission recognises that this would not always be practical, and asks the commission to look at the need for other arrangements for services which may be better carried out over wider areas. The arrangements the commission may recommend depend on the nature of the service, the structure proposed and local circumstan-ces. In some cases authorities may need to collaborate in order to retain centres of expertise and specialist facilities, to achieve economies of scale or to gain a strategic perspective.

We do not see ourselves as having a prescriptive role in the development of structures for local solutions. I mentioned that our policy up to now has been that authorities should decide for themselves how to exercise their powers and duties. A variety of approaches has evolved, and authorities will be able to learn from each others' experience in this field. Local solutions are usually more satisfactory than centrally imposed ones. I believe that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, is over-pessimistic about local authorities' ability to establish for their archives sensible arrangements reflecting local circumstances and local needs.

Where collaborative arrangements are appropriate, our preference is always that such arrangements should be made on a voluntary basis, because in that way they will benefit from more local accountability. Collaborative arrangements, whether they are of the partnership or lead authority models, work well in many areas. However, in order to protect the users of services, the Secretary of State has powers under the Local Government Act 1992 to impose joint authorities if he considers that satisfactory voluntary arrangements have not been made or, if they have been made, are not working properly.

In response to my noble friend Lord Beloff, perhaps I may say that the Government have a very clear policy on local archive services. They wish to see the progress which has been achieved since the enactment of the 1962 Act continue. We see our role as a facilitator—to see connections between activities and promote policies, structures and networks to assist independent free enterprise. That is why we are actively collaborating with the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, the Public Record Office, the Department of National Heritage, the Society of Archivists and the Association of County Archivists on the production of central guidance to the new local authorities about archive services. That will help to establish best practice and advise new authorities on co-operation arrangements. The aims of the guidance will be to help avoid the unnecessary dispersal of collections and to maintain a high quality of storage and access to the service.

My noble friend Lord Montagu of Beaulieu spoke of the perceived threat to the archive service. I believe that that is indeed an over-reaction; and I was pleased to note that the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, agreed on that point.

A draft guidance note has already been circulated for consultation and contains material on such matters as the definition of records, relevant standards to be adopted, the resources necessary to achieve them and how to deal with transitional periods. It is intended to have the guidance in place before the first new authorities come into being.

In response to a point raised by my noble friend Lady Park of Monmouth, we are much aware of the importance of sites and monuments records. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage is working closely with the heritage agencies to ensure that satisfactory provision is made for archaeological advice and the maintenance of records.

Many valuable lessons have been learned and much experience gained by archive services in the former metropolitan counties in the years since their dissolution. That experience can, and will, be drawn on to help us avoid the potential pitfalls. With the production of guidelines and wide-ranging discussions in which we are engaged, I am confident that the future of archive services in the present English counties will be secured. I hope that I have indeed reassured your Lordships that we fully recognise the importance of local authority archive records, and will do everything possible to ensure that after the reorganisation of local government, they continue to be something of which we can all be justifiably proud.

Earl Russell

My Lords, before the noble Viscount sits down, will he reply to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, and the noble Baroness, Lady Park, about the Victoria County Histories? Those points are causing intense anxiety to those working on the enterprise.

Viscount St Davids

My Lords, we are now extremely short of time. It is a complex issue. I shall, of course, write to all noble Lords and to the noble Baroness on those matters.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do adjourn during pleasure until 8.15.

Moved accordingly and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.13 to 8.15 p.m.]