§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 6.50 p.m.
§ The Solicitor-General (Sir Harry Hylton-Foster)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This Bill is about public records. That may be a specialist subject, but it is far from being an unimportant one in the public sense. The object of the Bill is to make modern and apt provision for public records, for their custody, for the collection and preservation of those which ought to be preserved, for the destruction of those which ought not to be preserved and for the access by the public to public records. It gives effect to the main recommendations of the Committee on Departmental Records. That was a Committee under the chairmanship o f Sir James Grigg, which reported in 1954.
When it did, the then Financial Secretary to the Treasury expressed the 500 gratitude of the Government to Sir James Grigg and his colleagues, but I am sure that the House, as I move the Second Reading of the Bill, would desire me once again to emphasise how greatly indebted we all are to Sir James and his colleagues for the very able, full and useful Report which they did produce.
As the Report sets out so much of the history and deals with so many of the problems of this matter, and as the Bill has already been discussed in another place, I do not think that the House would wish me at this stage, to attempt an elaborate analysis of its provisions, but, if I attempt a rather more general approach, it would be on the basis, if the House were to approve that course, that I would seek to answer any questions which arise relating to the Bill either by leave of the House tonight or at a later stage if I want to have more mature consideration of the right answer so as not to mislead the House.
The Grigg Committee, of course, was dealing with Departmental records only, but the Bill deals with legal records, too, because it is obviously desirable, so we would submit, for administrative reasons and for the convenience of students and historians, that both kinds of records should be subject to the same general system.
The Master of the Rolls has long been concerned with records. By his patent I believe that he isOur Keeper or Master of the Rolls and Records of Our Chancery of England.He has been responsible for curial records since early mediæval days as deputy of the Lord Chancellor, but he has acquired his additional responsibility for records in an odd way. The Committee looked at it in paragraphs 124 to 129 of its Report. He acquired under the Public Record Office Act, 1838, responsibility, in addition, for the records of the Court of Exchequer and other ancient courts and under an Order in Council of 1852 for Departmental records; and all that, says the Committee in substance, very largely as a result of accident.
The fact is that the Acts of Parliament which at present govern the disposal and custody of documents, whether they arise either from the administration of justice or from the groanings of Departments under the processes of Government, are not really adapted for the purpose. They 501 were directed fundamentally at legal records only. Our parliamentary forebears in the early part of the nineteenth century are certainly not to be blamed if they did not foresee how very prolific of documents the processes of Government would become, fertilised as they are by typewriters. Hence the present unsatisfactory position which the Bill is designed to remedy.
Basically, the Grigg Committee thought that there were two main defects; and the Bill seeks to deal with them both. The Government agree basically with the Committee's analysis. The first was that there was no Minister answerable to Parliament to whom the Public Record Office was subject. Obviously, that is not constitutionally as it should be, and it involved the Public Record Office, so the Committee thought, in a disadvantage in that it had not got a Minister to fight its battles, as it were, on a ministerial level in inter-departmental discussions—a Minister to urge other Departments to destroy their worthless documents and to transfer their valuable ones to the Public Record Office when the time came.
The other principal defect was that under the present law there is no power to destroy any document whatsoever, except pursuant to a statutory horror called the Destruction Schedule; fundamentally, a disappointing document. The Committee recommended—I quote from paragraph 128—their disappearanceConsidering the other calls on the time of Members of Parliament and the fact that their existing powers in relation to the Schedules are more apparent than real".That is in no sense an overstatement. The Schedules have to be laid before the House before they come into force—I think that it is for nine weeks, but it does not matter—and when the House has them before it, it can neither amend them nor reject them; so that would seem a rather futile system in practice.
The Bill deals with both these two defects. Clause 1 gives the Lord Chancellor a general responsibility for public records, which are defined in the First Schedule. It also transfers direction of the Public Record Office to the Lord Chancellor as the Minister responsible to Parliament. He will have an Advisory Council for his assistance, and he will have to lay annual reports before both Houses.
502 Lest anyone should think that the transfer imports any slight upon the ancient office of the Master of the Rolls, still more upon the present occupant of that office, I think it right to say that no one who knows the noble Lord and the distinction which he has brought to the performance of that part of his duties could doubt that it would be difficult to find any holder of his ancient office—I believe he is the eighty-fifth in the straight line—who has done more for the Public Record Office than he has. He was himself an appointer of this Committee, and he has, so I understand, personally expressed his approval of the main provisions of this Bill.
The Master of the Rolls' predecessor, the late Lord Greene, expressed a view which is quoted in paragraph 127 of the Committee's Report, which says that hedid not think that one man could fill the office of Master of the Rolls adequately so long as to his heavy duties as a judge were added the executive responsibility of preserving the public records.That seems sensible enough, and it is certainly not an executive responsibility which is diminishing.
But if this Bill will relieve the Master of the Rolls of some of his executive burden it will still leave him a most important person in the world of records, which the House, I think, would think a desirable result. I have been tabulating what will be the Master of the Rolls' position in connection with records. He will, under Clause 1(2), be the chairman of the advisory council. Under Clause 7, he will retain his ancient responsibility for the records of the Chancery of England.
That means, in practice, that he will be responsible for most of the records of the executive Government of this country up to the end of the sixteenth century, and, in addition to that, three series of records which are still current: the Patent Rolls, the Coronation Rolls, and Warrants under the Great Seal. Under Clause 8(4), he will acquire a responsibility new to him in relation to private documents which have lain in the custody of a court for more than fifty years. He will retain, of course, his statutory superintendence under the relevant Acts of Parliament over manorial documents, which are private documents, and over copies of instruments of apportionment under the 503 Tithe Acts and he will remain the ex officio Chairman of the Historical Manuscripts Commission.
Clause 2 of the Bill deals with the constitution and direction of the Public Record Office. Clause 3 deals with the reviewing of records by Departments, the destruction of those which are not worth keeping and the transfer of those worth keeping to the Public Record Office or to some other place chosen by the Lord Chancellor. It is this Clause which makes it possible to introduce administratively the new system involving two reviews of Departmental records recommended by the Grigg Committee.
The House probably is—it certainly should be—aware of the need. When the Committee looked at the facts in May, 1954, it found that the Public Record Office, in its main repository in Chancery Lane and its branch repository at Ashridge Park, had records occupying 207,000 linear feet. I take these figures from paragraph 28 of the Grigg Committee's Report. As to 82,800 feet, they were legal documents in the custody of the Master of the Rolls, and as to the balance they were Departmental documents under his charge and superintendence.
The Departments themselves estimated, in 1951, that they had 450,000 linear feet of non-current material in their hands, which, under the existing practice, would pass to the Public Record Office in due course. The Committee's own inquiry, made in 1952 and 1953, led to its estimating that, year by year, there would be created by Departments and pass for ultimate preservation to the Public Record Office documents worth 14,000 linear feet of shelving space in each year, to which had to be added another 250 linear feet of shelving space for legal records.
Obviously, that accumulation would create a formidable problem of space and storage and of keeping the records easily and properly accessible to students, historians and others who wanted to look at them. I shudder to think of what it must have looked like to those working in the Office—a dreadful flood of documents descending upon those scholarly and not underburdened civil servants who give such admirable public service in the Public Record Office. It is plain, I submit, that there was dire need for the Bill.
504 The Bill provides, by Clause 3, that public records selected for permanent preservation shall be transferred to the Public Record Office not later than thirty years after their creation. However, before that happens, all documents, with certain exceptions, such as Ministers' files, will be inspected in each Department five years after they have been closed, and they will then be preserved only if they are thought to be of value for the purpose of the administration of the Department. Those preserved will be subject to a second review after about twenty-five years, when they will be inspected jointly by the officers of the Department concerned and officers of the Public Record Office.
Then, the decision whether to retain them will be reached not only on administrative grounds, but also after consideration of their value for historical purposes. At that stage, documents which a Department wishes neither to destroy nor to retain for its own administrative purposes will be transferred to the Public Record Office, or, if they are of particularly local character, to such other place as may be approved by the Lord Chancellor under Clause 4 of the Bill.
The new system is already under way, and the House will be interested to know how it is working. Of course, if it is to work well, it is essential that Departments must go through their records and destroy what is not worth keeping. In accordance with the recommendation of the Grigg Committee, in paragraph 131 of its Report, a Records Administration Officer has been appointed in the Public Record Office. There is some evidence that he and his inspecting officers are already playing a useful part. I take an almost sadistic satisfaction in thinking of these figures. It was estimated that the amount, or dead weight—if that be the happy description—of documents destroyed by the Departments in 1956 was 3,600 tons. Since the beneficial influence of the new system, the year 1957 produced an estimated quantity destroyed of 5,398 tons in the year—about 60 miles of shelving, for those who like to be statistically minded.
The Government accept in principle the recommendation of the Grigg Committee that documents transferred to the Public Record Office should be made available to the public after they have been in 505 existence for fifty years. Provision to that effect is made in Clause 5(1). Clause 5 refers not only to the fifty year period but also tosuch other period, either longer or shorter, as the Lord Chancellor may … prescribe".The object is to withhold from public inspection, should it be necessary, documents the publication of which after even so long a period as fifty years might be harmful.
To choose specimens from two quite different classes of matter; one example might be criminal investigation records. the revealing of which might be very painful, not necessarily to the person concerned, but to his relatives. Another example might be the kind of material which individuals and businesses communicate to the Board of Trade, really under seal of confidence, for statistical purposes; clearly, it might be wise not to disclose those for some period of time different from the fifty years specifically provided.
In substance, the result of all these changes is that the Public Record Office Acts will cease to have effect; they are repealed by the Bill. Clause 10 supplies a new definition of "public record", that in the First Schedule, which, it is hoped, will prove more satisfactory than the rather vague statutory definition which is operative at the moment. I merely say now that that new definition is designed to exclude private records, for we are dealing with public records here, and, since we are dealing with Crown documents, it does not extend to local government records.
I understand that some anxiety has been expressed about the provision in paragraph 7(1) of the First Schedule enabling Her Majesty, by Order in Council, to direct that any description of records not falling within the provisions of the Schedule shall be treated as public records. It is feared that the Government might be hatching some design to take away from other bodies their private records. I am happy to give an assurance to the House that it is not the Government's intention to do anything of the kind or to use that power for any such purpose. The provision is there to cover bodies which may be established in the future. It is obviously wise to have some such provision. Moreover, the House will not have failed to notice that any action 506 under the paragraph is subject to the useful restraint that any such Order in Council will require approval by affirmative Resolution of both Houses of Parliament.
§ Mr. J. A. Sparks (Acton)
I do not know whether I misunderstood what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said just now, but I thought that he said that the Lord Chancellor will present an annual report to Parliament arising from the duties and responsibilities placed upon him by the Bill, and, also, that an advisory council would be set up to advise the Lord Chancellor. I have looked at the Bill and I can see no reference whatever to those two rather important matters.
§ The Solicitor-General
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman's reading got as far as Clause 1. If he has the Bill, and looks at Clause 1(2), I need direct his inquiry no further.
§ 7.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)
The hon. and learned Gentleman the Solicitor-General has given the House a very comprehensive review of the general objects of the Bill and of the circumstances in which it has become necessary to introduce it. It was inevitable that in covering such a wide field he should leave certain gaps, and the House will, I am sure, forgive me if I traverse part of the ground which he covered in addressing myself to a number of questions on the Bill and on the Report of the Grigg Committee which occur to us. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will have an opportunity of answering some of these questions either later this evening or, if that is not possible, during the Committee stage.
The Bill deals with a very important subject, but one which attracts only a rather specialised interest. Perhaps the House will allow me to say that it gives me particular pleasure to have this opportunity to say a few words about the Bill, because some years ago I spent a great many happy hours in the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane when engaged in a modest amount of research into medieval manuscripts. Nevertheless, I imagine that few of us share the ecstasy of Frederick William Maitland, than whom nobody ever sang the praises of the Record Office more eloquently. To him the whereabouts of the first-hand 507 evidence of the law of the Middle Ages came as a dazzling discovery. In his own words, the Record Office wasthe most glorious store of material for legal history that has ever been gathered in one place.I should like to take this opportunity of echoing from my own experience—and I know it is the experience of other users of the Record Office—the great debt which is owed to the staff of the Record Office for their unfailing courtesy and assistance, both to students and to members of the general public in advising and making available the vast collection of records in that building.
Even without any specialised knowledge of the subject, few of us who have any regard for this priceless heritage of the manuscript evidence of British history can fail to experience some thrill when we visit the Record Office and see, for example, such historic manuscripts in the original as the Domesday Book, Magna Carta and others, to say nothing of the shelves and shelves of rolls of Parliament, mediæval petitions, Curia Regis rolls, the Exchequer rolls, and so on.
It is worth while mentioning that the Record Office not only serves the needs of students in this country, but is used very extensively by students from overseas. As a result of the development of the photographic department, in recent years very large quantities of photographic copies of these important mediæval documents have been sent abroad. I do not want to weary the House with statistics, but I am told that last year alone the photographic department supplied over 1,300,000 microfilm copies or frames of documents from the Record Office, a large number of which went to the United States and Canada.
I have always regarded the Record Office as a model of Departmental efficiency. Indeed, it is generally regarded by those who have had any experience of it as being a very smoothly and efficiently run Department rendering invaluable and unobtrusive public service. That being so, it may well be asked why any change is called for and why it is necessary to change a system which works so well.
The answer to the question is two-fold—partly practical and partly technical. It arises, in the first place, as the right hon. 508 and learned Gentleman said, from the acute and urgent necessity of dealing systematically with the growing bulk of Departmental records. As you are well aware, Mr. Speaker, bulk and proliferation of written documents, largely due to the typewriter and other mechanical devices, is a modern phenomenon. It did not arise 100 years ago, still less in the Middle Ages.
Not all these documents can be preserved. Requirements of space alone forbid it. I am afraid that I do not share the right hon. and learned Gentleman's apparent sadistic satisfaction with the tremendous destruction which took place last year and the year before. It may have been inevitable, but, as the Grigg Committee pointed out, the necessity for some change of system arises because of the tremendous backlog of unsorted unclassified documents which have been accumulating in the hands of the various Government Departments during the last two generations.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman gave us the figures. Whereas today the records in the Public Record Office occupy about forty miles of shelving space, it is estimated that the records in the possession of Government Departments which will ultimately be transferred to the Public Record Office would require no less than another 120 miles of shelving space. The longer these records are left uncontrolled, or virtually uncontrolled, the more serious will the situation become. Not only will it become a burden on the Department itself and its staff, but it will produce a problem which will make the task of the, historian of the future almost unmanageable.
The path of the mediæval historian today is not free from difficulty. A great many documents there are untranslated, unpublished, unindexed, not always filed in chronological order, sometimes in an imperfect state of preservation and sometimes, in part, almost entirely illegible. But unless something drastic is done fairly soon about the vast accumulation of Departmental records not yet transferred to the Record Office, the task of future generations of historians will be infinitely more difficult. I quote the former Deputy Chief of Records who said:There is real danger that the historians of the future will be buried under a mass of manuscript authorities.509 I should like to join in the tribute to the admirable Report produced by the Grigg Committee, and I think the House should be reminded that that Committee made several very stringent criticisms of the way in which Departments have been dealing—or failing to deal—with their records. In paragraphs 65 and 79, the Committee commented adversely on the practice of many Departments of entrusting the oversight of records to junior and inexperienced staff. It refers to bad management technique, the failure of adequate supervision and to the shortsighted policy of denying to registries a fair share of average quality staff. I think the House would be surprised to know that, in one of the opening paragraphs of its Report, the Grigg Committee, though not identifying the Department—and, of course, the practice varies from Department to Department—says:… the Department which seems to be most satisfied with its existing arrangements has in its possession unsorted papers going back to the eighteenth century—a state of affairs, which so far as we are aware, exists in no other Department.Obviously, the problem that is faced by the present Government, or by any Government, is not an easy one—the problem of what to preserve and what to destroy—and, of course, that problem does not get any nearer solution by being shelved. The key to the problem is the one of selection. If I may quote from paragraph 30 of the Report, the Committee says:The problem is one to which there is no perfect solution. No one can forecast with certainty what papers future historians are likely to consider important. Not even the historian of today can do this; it has indeed been said that he is the last person who should be allowed to try … A further difficulty is that the usefulness of a document to a research worker often has little to do with the purpose for which it was originally created.The right hon. and learned Gentleman has reminded us that the earlier Public Record Office Acts were intended to deal purely with legal documents. In fact, it is only as a result of a series of fortuitous and somewhat irregular accidents that the Master of the Rolls, as Custodian of the Public Records originally limited to legal documents, became responsible for the papers of all Government Departments. But only after they have actually been transferred to the Record Office. The present Master of the Rolls has said that 510 he has no effective control over what goes on in any Government Department with regard to the preservation or destruction of records.
I have referred to the practical difficulty. The technical difficulty is indicated in paragraph 55 of the Grigg Report, which says:The present arrangements for the preservation of the records of Government Departments are governed by an Act of 1838 which we believe was not meant to apply to them, an Act of 1877 which makes the selection of records for preservation about as complicated as it can be, and an agreement of 1845–46 which removed from those responsible for the ultimate preservation of the records a proper oversight of them.This then is the situation with which the Bill is designed to deal. It is intended to simplify the procedure for preserving or destroying public records, but the first comment that one would make on the Bill is that it is conspicuously silent about the principles which are to be applied in future with regard to such preservation or destruction.
The only reference, in fact, is in Clause 3(1) of the Bill, which provides:It shall be the duty of every person responsible for public records … not in the Public Record Office … to make arrangements for the selection of those records which ought to be permanently preserved and for their safekeeping.There is nothing in the Bill at all to indicate what principles are to be applied to this all-important problem of selection.
The Grigg Committee made detailed recommendations on how the arrears of work in the Departments should be dealt with and what procedure should be followed in the future. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman said, the Grigg Committee, in effect, recommended that there should be in every Department a departmental record officer of a recognised senior status, and that the staff of the Public Record Office should be strengthened by the appointment of a records administrative officer, and, under him, a number of inspecting officers, who should work in very close liaison with all the Departments; and that there should be a First Review after five years, and a Second Review after 25 years.
I gather from the right hon. and learned Gentleman that, in fact, a great many of these purely administrative changes, which, of course, require no legislative 511 sanction, have already been carried out, and that indeed was my own information. There is a document, which I believe is available to the public, called "A Guide for Departmental Record Officers", which strikes me as being an admirable production, and which, as far as I can see, attempts to carry into effect the detailed administrative recommendations of the Grigg Committee. I should be glad to have an assurance from the Government that adequate staff has been made available both the Public Record Office and to the Departments to enable these recommendations to be fully carried out, both in the spirit and the letter.
We must not conceal from ourselves the fact that one of the reasons why this problem has been allowed to drift and has now become so serious is the parsimony of the Treasury in not allowing adequate staff for this task. It was, perhaps, not unnaturally, put aside in the interests of what the Treasury thought were more important duties.
That brings me to what I think is perhaps the major controversial provision, in the Bill. May I pause again to reflect that the major work recommended by the Grigg Committee has, as I understand it, already been carried out without the necessity for this Bill at all. As the Solicitor-General has said, this Bill makes very important and novel changes in the responsibilities for the preservation of public documents. It makes a breach with the traditional duties of the Master of the Rolls, which, as the Solicitor-General said, is a very ancient and honourable office, and transfers the responsibility to the Lord Chancellor.
But the right hon. and learned Gentleman failed to draw the attention of the House to the fact that in this respect the Bill makes a notable departure from the recommendations of the Grigg Committee. I am not now commenting on the recommendation that responsibility should be vested in a Cabinet Minister. I want to comment on the choice of the most appropriate Cabinet Minister to be entrusted with these duties. Before doing so, may I add my tribute to that of the right hon. and learned Gentleman to the great diligence and distinction with which the present Master of the Rolls, like his immediate predecessor, Lord Greene, has discharged the responsible executive tasks that attach to his office.
512 It is said that the problem we face today has grown up over the years because it is inherent in the office of the Master of the Rolls which is primarily judicial and not Ministerial that he has not been able to exercise that control of pressure on Government Departments that a Cabinet Minister can do. Assuming the need for more effective control to ensure that this work does not get into arrears in future is made out, I ask myself, and I ask the Government, why choose the Lord Chancellor? The Grigg Committee says in paragraph 129:The choice of a Minister to take charge of the Department would seem to lie between the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Lord President of the Council and the Home Secretary.The Government think otherwise. They have selected the Lord Chancellor. Without, of course, any disrespect to the present Lord Chancellor I must say that I am not happy about the choice. In so far as one of the reasons for making a change at all is because of the heavy judicial duties of the Masters of the Rolls—who already has other public responsibilities—one might well have thought that the Lord Chancellor, with his judicial responsibilities in addition to all his other Ministerial and miscellaneous functions, might have been regarded as one of the most overworked and understaffed of Cabinet Ministers. Therefore, I would have thought that prima facie there was a strong case for selecting as the appropriate Cabinet Minister, if there is to be a change, either the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Lord President of the Council or the Home Secretary. For myself I would have preferred the Lord President of the Council.
§ Mr. Montgomery Hyde (Belfast, North)
Would not the hon. Gentleman agree that those three Ministers are equally overworked?
§ Mr. Fletcher
To some extent, that varies from year to year. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), who has had experience of being Home Secretary, will be able to express his views about that. But it will be agreed that each of the three Departments mentioned have far greater resources of staff on which to rely than has the Lord Chancellor. There is this to be said about the Lord President of the Council, that he discharges somewhat 513 similar functions in relation to the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research.
There is also the consideration that one of the reasons for transferring these functions from the Master of the Rolls to a Cabinet Minister is that it makes it easier to apply the principle of public accountability. It makes it easier for this House to control the operations and to put questions to the appropriate Cabinet Minister. I am sure the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Hyde) will agree with me that the responsibility for deciding what documents should be destroyed is not an easy one and not a light one to be treated with indifference. Once the decision is taken to destroy a batch of records, it is final and irrevocable. Whoever takes it should be answerable to this House.
One of the difficulties about making the Lord Chancellor responsible is that it is much more difficult for us in this House to address Questions to the Lord Chancellor than to any other Cabinet Minister. We have all had the experience of putting down Questions for which the Lord Chancellor is responsible. Sometimes we get replies from the Attorney-General, or from the Solicitor-General. However, I think all hon. Members will agree that the procedure is not entirely satisfactory. They are not quite on a par with junior Ministers. We are often told that such observations as we make will be passed on to the Attorney-General's noble Friend, and there is an end of the matter. All other Cabinet Ministers, even if they sit in the Lords, have someone in this House who is far more directly responsible to them than are the Law Officers to the Lord Chancellor. And, of course, the Lord President of the Council does not necessarily sit in the House of Lords; as often as not he sits in this House.
I do not want to press the matter, but I cannot help feeling that in reaching this decision the Government have sacrificed administrative efficiency to a sentimental desire to preserve the historic relationship between the Master of the Rolls and the Lord Chancellor. This is a matter which we can pursue further on the Committee stage. If the Government insist on the choice that they have made, I would merely remind the House that if the system does not work well, it 514 could easily be dealt with by an order under the Transfer of Functions Act, 1948.
I pass from that to a few comments of detail on the Bill which I raise now, but with which we can deal at greater length during the Committee stage. As it seems to me, the success of the plan contained in the Bill will reside largely in the Treasury making adequate staff available, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, in the powers given to the Advisory Council to be set up under Clause 1(2).
It is indeed reassuring to know that the Master of the Rolls is to have the statutory post of chairman of this advisory council. I hope that the remaining members of the council will not necessarily be selected, as the Grigg Committee recommended, from the judiciary and the legal profession, but that there will be representatives of the universities, of the Church, of local authorities, certainly of historians and archivists, and that the interests of scholars overseas will not be ignored. If one wanted to be critical of the Grigg Committee it might be thought, reading the Report and seeing the list of organisations consulted and the witnesses who attended, that it would appear doubtful whether the Committee took adequate advice from historians, and the general body of those using the Record Office.
I am not happy about Clause 2(4). We must remember that the problem falls into two different parts. There will remain the historic functions of the Public Record Office in preserving and making available to the public the collection of documents already there. That task must not be overlooked in the more immediate and pressing task of dealing with current Departmental records. In subsection (4) the duties of the Keeper of Public Records are listed, but no reference, it seems to me, is made to what I would regard as the important duty of repairing, binding and securing the records that are in need of such treatment. I hope that something to that effect will be written into the Bill to ensure that the Keeper of Public Records shall be provided with adequate funds to enable him to catch up with the delays that have been inevitable in preparing indices, lists and calendars of records actually there.
515 The Solicitor-General has already drawn attention to the provision in Clause 5 that documents should not be available for public inspection until they have been in existence for fifty years or such other period, either longer or shorter. I hope we can have an assurance that in the ordinary way, subject to special cases that will be designated, all documents at the Record Office will be made available to the public after not less than fifty years. I would also hope for an assurance that certain categories of document will in no circumstances be destroyed. I refer, for example, to Cabinet papers.
It is well known that the Cabinet only started to have a secretariat, or any papers, in 1916. Therefore, it will be only a few years from now before the most important and informative of all State papers will attain the age of fifty years. I imagine that all hon. Members agree that it would be wrong for any such documents to be destroyed in any circumstances. Historians and the public will expect these documents to become available to public scrutiny in 1966 and onwards.
Other classes of document will attract a great deal of interest as soon as they become available, such as those relating to security, and documents which were of a secret character at the time when they were made. The condition of secrecy evaporates with the passage of time.
That brings me to Clause 7 on which I would ask the Solicitor-General for more clarification than he gave us. The Clause appears to draw a distinction between the records that will continue to remain in the custody of the Master of the Rolls and other documents at the Record Office. I imagine that the distinction is preserved for historic reasons. From what the Solicitor-General told us, there did not seem any other, or any logical, basis for the distinction. In so far as it preserves a historical tradition I support it, but it should be made clear whether there is any intention in future to make a distinction between the records of the Chancery of England and all other records.
I am afraid that I have trespassed too long on the time of the House. My final point is to touch upon the question of private documents. For the purposes of 516 historians of the future, collections of private documents will be no less important than public records. I do not merely mean documents in the hands of private individuals, but documents and records in the hands of the ecclesiastical authorities, local authorities and others. The Solicitor-General has told us that the Master of the Rolls, by virtue of his manifold duties, is Chairman of the Historic Manuscripts Commission and has other responsibilities in relation to documents. He will act as a kind of pivotal figure in centralising the future collection of private documents, since the changes being made in the Bill will depend not so much on the provisions of the Bill but upon the manner in which effect is given to the recommendations of the Grigg Committee.
Perhaps I could conclude by saying that while this side of the House has certain reservations about some of the detailed provisions in the Bill, we recognise that a serious attempt is being made by the Government, in the words of the Grigg Committee, to make adequate arrangements for the preservation of its records as one of the inescapable duties of the Government of a civilised State.
§ 7.49 p.m.
§ Mr. Edward du Cann (Taunton)
All inside and outside the House who are interested in the subject of the Bill will give a general welcome to the Bill. Not the least of its virtues is that it will strengthen the backing which the Government have given to local authorities in their efforts to preserve a series of records in each county.
The Solicitor-General, with his customary admirably clear and lucid speech, was good enough to invite us to ask questions about particular parts of the Bill, and to make comments. I would like to ask specific questions about Clause 4 and to make a comment on the attitude of the Government towards the keeping of records. I should like to follow the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher), but that would take up more time than I can spare. I will take up some of his points in Committee. I agreed with very much of what he said.
Clause 4 gives the Lord Chancellor a general power to appoint places in which to deposit public records, other than the Public Record Office. In other words, 517 it provides for the local storage of records, and that is a very good thing. Subsection (5) gives the Lord Chancellor a general authority to appoint an officer to be responsible for the safe custody of records in various localities. Neither those who have the responsibility for looking after public records in the County of Somerset nor I have been able to understand exactly what is involved in this Clause, as drafted. Does it mean that the Lord Chancellor can appoint virtually anybody in that capacity? Can he appoint an official of a Government Department, or of a local authority, or even the chairman of a local museum committee, or some other voluntary body of that sort? What sort of appointees are likely to be made by the Lord Chancellor under this subsection?
I shall be grateful if my right hon. and learned Friend can say something about the kind of places of deposit which he thinks might be designated under the Clause. Where the place of deposit is a records office owned by a local authority—for example, a county council—it would seem appropriate that the Lord Chancellor should be under some obligation to appoint the clerk of the council rather than one of the subordinate officials employed by the council. My right hon. and learned Friend will be very much better aware than I am that the clerk of the council will already be responsible for certain county records, notably quarter sessions records, and it would seem appropriate that he should be responsible for all records.
If an official of a county council, such as a county archivist, were appointed, it would seem that an unsatisfactory division of responsibility would be created, which could be avoided. I should very much like to have my right hon. and learned Friend's comments upon that matter, and in particular, to have his answer to the question whether it is intended, as a general rule, to appoint clerks of councils.
§ Mr. Ede (South Shields)
Would the hon. Member care to express his views as to the proper person to be appointed when the office of clerk of the council and the office of clerk of the peace are held by separate individuals?
§ Mr. du Cann
The right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) has very great experience an matters of local government. I acknowledge that there might be 518 exceptional cases where it would not be possible to arrive at a satisfactory solution without making a firm decision which would disappoint someone.
I feel that the Bill, as drafted, is probably satisfactory in those cases where the situation is straightforward, as it is in Somerset, where the clerk of the council is at the same time the clerk of the peace, but it would be helpful to have a general expression of intention from my right hon. and learned Friend. I realise that there are difficult cases—as, for example, in the County of Lincoln. On the other hand, a principle is involved to some extent, and if the matter could be settled it would help certain local authorities.
I should like to quote something written in 1581 by Lambarde, in his Eirenarcha, or, to give it its proper title, "Of the Office of the Justices of Peace", which, presumably, has been superseded by Stone's "Justices' Manual" in these days. He said thatthe records … should be lodged in some proper or special room under safe custody and not without an inventory.Hon. Members may well think that those are words which should be of general application today. They were certainly not of application when they were written, and they are not always of full application today—more is the pity.
The County of Somerset first had a record office about 350 years ago. In the words of the time,a strong and convenient roomwas established in Wells Cathedral. One hundred and forty years ago the county records were moved to Wilton Gaol, in Taunton, where, I have no doubt, they found a very strong and convenient resting place. One hundred years ago, exactly to this year, they were deposited at Shire Hall, at Taunton where, in the main, they rest at this time. Somerset has a very important and valuable collection. It has records of quarter sessions since the reign of James I, and very full records of county council and other statutory bodies, including the board of guardians, tithe and parish records, and manorial and estate records dating back to the twelfth century.
This collection was very much too large for the Shire Hall and some of the records have been deposited at Elmfield House, in Taunton—a thoroughly unsatisfactory repository, because it is an 519 extremely damp place and has an abnormal fire risk. Furthermore, the Somerset College of Art urgently requires to get back into full occupation of that house. Other county records are stored in an old barn, again an unsatisfactory depository, if for no other reason than that its tenure is uncertain. That arrangement is made through the courtesy of the chairman of the records committee of the county council.
All this means that proper administration by these devoted people, to whom tribute has been paid, is impossible; it means that examination is difficult, and that economic supervision is out of the question. Worst of all, it means that the stores are unable to accept more records. These stores are several miles apart and they are overcrowded. I do not suppose that the example that I have given is untypical of the state of affairs existing in other counties.
Strong representations were made by the Somerset County Council to the Government, requesting the approval of plans laid for the erection of a new record depository. As may be imagined, I warmly supported those representations, and the Minister of Housing and Local Government was good enough to approve the plans in principle in March of last year. He was good enough, further, to approve a tender in July of last year, and the work is now going ahead fast; indeed, the builders will be finished before time. My purpose in spending a little time talking about this matter was to express the appreciation of the people of Somerset to the county council and my own appreciation to Her Majesty's Government for the sympathetic consideration with which this matter was received and dealt with so expeditiously.
In quoting Lambarde I mentioned that we had to have not only a storeroom, but also a proper inventory—a thing that also does not always exist. We made up such an inventory three years ago in Somerset and I should like to quote from the preface. It says that awise understanding of the present and of the possibility of the future can only be gained by a knowledge of the past.I am sure that right hon. and hon. Gentlemen will agree that those words are very true. It is good to know that the Government acknowledge the need for a proper storage of records and are giving sound 520 practical help in that connection in the way that I have detailed and by the introduction of the Bill.
§ 7.59 p.m.
§ Mr. J. A. Sparks (Acton)
I wish to say a word in support of this Bill. Having listened to the remarks of the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann), particularly his references to the problem in localities rather than to the national problem, I think it regrettable that the Bill makes no provision for the collection and safe custody of the records of local government authorities. That seems to me a great weakness. At present, there is no body with any power in the counties which is responsible for collecting and maintaining the very valuable records of local authorities. When referring to local authorities in this context, I am not necessarily referring to county councils or county district councils, but to other authorities which existed before their constitution. The establishment of county record offices and the employment of county archivists is a matter for the discretion of county authorities, and there is no obligation on them to do so.
Even where county archivists are appointed, they have little power. Most of them say that there is a wealth of valuable material scattered throughout the parishes in the counties and forgotten about. Persons who have the custody of these documents often have not the faintest idea of their historical value. Much of this material has ben destroyed or lost, but a great deal still remains. Now we are proposing to pass legislation to deal with this matter, and I think we should include a provision for the collection of that valuable material into some central spot. The contribution made by this material to the amount of historical knowledge of our country is just as important as that of the national records, and once these documents disappear records of county history are lost for ever.
I welcome this Bill. Having had some experience of the work in the Public Record Office, I know that any member of the public or student engaged in research work among the documents deposited there will be struck by the willingness of the staff and their courteous attitude. It is a great pleasure for anyone to visit that office and benefit from their advice and help. It is becoming increasingly important that the Public 521 Record Office should be extended and its staff increased. When the recommendations of the Grigg Committee are implemented the status and importance of the Public Record Office will increase considerably.
Reference was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington. East (Mr. E. Fletcher) to the immense amount of documents already in Government Departments. He said that there were 120 miles of shelf space in Government Departments containing records awaiting sorting and transference into the keeping of the Public Record Office. On page 6 of the Grigg Committee's Report, it states:The result has been that useless material has been unnecessarily retained, and papers which ought to have been in the Public Record Office long ago and available for the 'free use' of the public are still in the hands of DepartmentsWhen this Bill becomes law and this mass of documents is sorted and those considered necessary to be retained passed to the Public Record Office, it will result in the acquisition of an immense amount of new material all urgently required by students and research workers. This, added to the existing responsibilities of the Department, will make it necessary to provide more accommodation for storing the documents and for the public and students and research workers. A larger staff will be required to cope with the increased activities of the Office.
I am sorry that the right hon. and learned Gentleman did not refer to this matter. A problem will be created when this additional material is transferred to the Public Record Office. It is intended by the provisions of this Bill to make available to the public a much wider range of historical records which are now in Government Departments, and to introduce a system to provide a regular flow of such records to the Office for use by the public. There is no mention in the Bill about the measures necessary to provide for this influx of new material. To expect the Public Record Office to handle this increased material and to provide it to an ever-growing circle of students without doing something about the accommodation is not to face the realities of the situation.
The Report considers this problem and makes one or two suggestions, but a very important point of principle is involved 522 in this aspect of the matter. The problem from the point of view of the public, the research worker and student is that if the documents in the care of the Public Record Office are to be dispersed among a number of centres, particularly if those are outside London, a particular document being available only at place A and another document being available only at place B and another available only at place C, the process of research will be completely disrupted.
Whatever is done, it is vitally important that the Public Record Office should remain the centre where all the records are available for study by the public. That does not necessarily mean that all the records must be there at Chancery Lane. It may well be that, for storage purposes, it will be necessary to store certain records in certain other parts of London, but the Report makes the valuable suggestion that, if that is done, some arrangement should be made to transport the documents required from the outlying centres to the Public Record Office at the request of students and research workers so that those documents can be studied in this central place.
If we do not maintain the idea of a central place of study where all the documents are available to the public, then the main purpose of the Public Record Office will not be achieved. If the public search and study of records are decentralised, the work of the research students will be disorganised. It is essential to have these records under one roof.
If we accept that principle, as the Grigg Committee accepted it—the Committee accepted the importance of this factor—we must take into consideration the adequacy of the existing accommodation at Chancery Lane. At present, the accommodation available for the public is totally and absolutely inadequate. There are times when every seat is occupied, and it is with exceptional difficulty that a small place can be found for a student to sit down and study a document. At other times, of course, there is room; but there are periods when the facilities for study are hopelessly overcrowded. More accommodation must be provided if the public is to make the fullest use of the Public Record Office and the fullest use of the resources there.
Fortunately, there is room on the site of the Public Record Office at Chancery 523 Lane for an extension of the existing buildings to provide additional storage, as well as more accommodation for students and research workers. The ideal solution to the problem would be for the Government to sanction an extension of the existing buildings, which would very largely overcome the difficulty. The Ministry of Works has been consulted about this proposed extension and estimates that it would cost about £900,000 to extend the existing buildings in order to accommodate the increased volume of documents and place greater and better facilities at the disposal of the public.
The Government may feel that this is a lot of money to spend in these times, but I do not think that it is. I think it is a very modest and reasonable sum of money, and it is certainly the most economical way of dealing with the problem. Otherwise, if no further accommodation is to be provided at Chancery Lane, it must be provided elsewhere, and it can be provided only at the expense of the Public Record Office and of the public, and with the incurring of unnecessary costs in bringing documents backwards and forwards from the different depôts and storages where they may happen to be. Inevitably, sufficient staffing of the Public Record Office is involved if we are to expect it to cope with the increased responsibility which will be placed upon it by the Bill.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman referred to the enormous mass of documents which are now awaiting inspection and the masses of documents likely to be destroyed. What worries me and, to some extent, worried the Grigg Committee, too, is that under the new arrangement whereby at the end of five years the whole of the Departmental records are to be examined—and it is suggested that 50 per cent. to 90 per cent. will be destroyed—there is a grave risk and great danger that documents of great historic value will be destroyed by persons who have no idea whatsoever of their historic criteria or historic value.
This review is to be undertaken every five years by a Departmental officer and unless he has an instinct for historic criteria he may well come to the conclusion that the lot should go. The Report suggests that the Public Record Office should appoint a limited number of inspecting officers who would give some 524 vague assistance to the Departmental officers about what should be destroyed. That provision is not adequate for the purpose.
The Departmental officers in charge of the records of Departments and upon whom the responsibility will lie every five years to sort out the documents—those of historic worth and those of no further use—must be skilled and trained themselves. Before anything is destroyed, the approval of the Public Record Office should be obtained. I believe that the Public Record Office is in a unique position to be able to assess the merits for historical purposes of Departmental documents.
Unless there is some kind of supervision by the Public Record Office and those who have been trained in the historic sense, we may well lose in the first five years some very important documents which could not thereafter be replaced. All of us who are interested in the work of the Public Record Office and the provision of ever wider facilities to students, historians and the public will welcome the Bill as an effort to place upon a more satisfactory basis the great historic records of our country for public scrutiny and public study.
That, after all, is what the Public Record Office is for. What would be the use of all this historic material if the public could not have access to it? It is valuable only to the extent that it can be studied and read so that the historians can write and complete and continue the history of our country in all its many aspects and phases. Unless a maximum effort is made to give to the public the widest range of facilities for studying these documents and material, the whole purpose of the Bill will fail.
If the provisions of the Bill are carried through, as some are undoubtedly being carried through at present, a more regular flow of vital materials to the Public Record Office and to the public will be secured. The Bill will provide valuable assistance in the writing of the history of the country and in helping people to know more about government, about conditions, and about many other aspects of national life, about which they can never know a great deal unless the flood gates of our archives are opened wide for all to study and for all to see.
§ 8.24 p.m.
§ Mr. Montgomery Hyde (Belfast, North)
Like the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Sparks) and the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher), I have a personal interest to disclose in that for many years I have been a user of the Public Record Office. I obtained my original student's ticket in 1931. I should like to join with them and with other hon. Members in adding my tribute to the invariable assistance and advice given by the competent and painstaking staff in the Office. I have been able to undertake research in other national archives, in Washington, in Paris, and even behind the Iron Curtain, in Moscow, but although in some of these places the archives are preserved in more spacious buildings, nowhere else have I encountered such help as in the office in Chancery Lane.
As we have been reminded, this is a Bill of specialised interest, but technical, complicated and detailed though it may be, it is also one of considerable public importance. The recommendations of the Grigg Committee, which form a substantial part of the Bill, are, on the whole, extremely sound. They were, of course, exclusively concerned with the treatment of Departmental records, but the Public Record Office contains another class of record which originally were greater in volume and of more importance—legal records.
In very early times, all records, both legal and administrative, were in the custody of the King's Secretary or Chancellor, later the Lord Chancellor. In 1396, King Richard II ordered that the legal records of the Chancery Court should be handed over to the Master of the Rolls. To carry out that object, he ordered that the job should be done by "one strong horse, not aged," which it was apparently possible to do.
Times have changed since then. Today there are thousands of tons of records in the Public Record Office, and its allied depositories at Ashridge and Hayes. There are about 50 miles of shelving in Chancery Lane alone, and we have been told that there is over twice that amount of shelf space of records at present in Government Departments awaiting transfer and eventual accommodation in the Record Office.
526 The records which are preserved in the Record Office include not merely documents but the more modern type of record such as photographs, films and speech recordings on disc or tape. In addition to students and research workers, the Public Record Office attracts visitors and members of the public, and it has a very interesting museum. For reasons of economy, it was necessary to close that museum in 1952, but I am glad to say that it has now been re-opened and that almost all the exhibits which were formerly on view—exhibits of the most fascinating interest in our history—are now available for public inspection every day.
The hon. Member for Islington, East referred to the Domesday Book. It is hard to say which document is more interesting than another, but there is one which struck my attention and which I can never look at without a certain feeling of awe. I have here a facsimile of it—an anonymous letter which was sent to a Member of another place, Lord Monteagle, on 26th October, 1605, advising him that he should devise some excuse not to attend the forthcoming opening of Parliamentfor God and man hathe concurred to punishe the wickednes of this tyme.The letter continued:They shall receyve a terrible blowe this Parleament and yet they shall not sei who hurts them.When one looks at documents of that kind the dramatic incidents in our history are very forcibly brought to mind.
The Bill has, from the public point of view two outstanding features. The first is the transfer of the direction of the Public Record Office for the first time to a responsible Minister, the Lord Chancellor, who is given general responsibility for the administration and custody of the public records. I am not sure that I am altogether in agreement with what the hon. Member for Islington, East said about the suitability or non-suitability of this Minister. There is certainly a strong historical reason why responsibility should be vested in him; and it seems to me that either my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General or my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General is a suitable person to answer to the House questions about the administration of the records 527 and any other questions about preservation and destruction and so on which may arise from time to time.
I am glad that the connection of the Master of the Rolls with the Office has been preserved, and particularly that he should become chairman of the Advisory Council which has been set up to give advice to the Chancellor. I have had the opportunity and privilege of talking about these matters with the present Master of the Rolls, and I have been tremendously impressed by the great interest and knowledge which Lord Ever-shed has shown in our public records.
The other feature of the Bill to which reference has been made, and to my mind an important feature from the public's point of view, is the provision, subject to certain exceptions, to make the opening of records to the public possible fifty years after their creation. This presumably means that in a few years, as the hon. Member for Islington, East has reminded us, the Cabinet records will begin to be available. Already the very important records of the Committee of Imperial Defence, which came into existence in 1904, should be ready for students to work over as soon as the Bill becomes law. There are, of course, other documents which we should like to see, though we may have to wait a little longer for them. I should like to see, in particular, and I am sure that hon. Members opposite would also like to see it, the Zinoviev Letter of 1924, which will not be available until 1974.
§ Mr. James Griffiths (Llanelly)
I am very interested. Is the hon. Member suggesting that there ever was such a letter?
§ Mr. Hyde
I am assuming that there was such a letter. Perhaps that was not a particularly fortunate example to cite, but it is a document which has been referred to frequently. One assumes that it is in the Foreign Office and will be available in due course for examination.
This 50-year period is a satisfactory feature because a number of Government Departments have been more reluctant than others to hand over their documents to the Record Office. Perhaps it is invidious to mention examples, but according to the schedule in the Grigg Committee's Report the Home Office has not handed over anything after 1880. It has 528 held on to everything since that year, as well as quite a good deal before that time. I think that possibly the hon. Member for Islington, East, when he quoted a section of the Grigg Report which referred to one Department still having unsorted documents of the eighteenth century, may have had that Department in mind.
I have one or two brief and, I hope, constructive criticisms to make about the Bill, but they are of quite a minor character. One of them has already been touched on by the hon. Member for Acton. I think that public records as they are defined in this Bill, excluding such legal records as those of quarter sessions and similar courts which are mentioned in Clause 4, should so far as possible be brought together and kept in the Public Record Office, and that they should not be allowed to leave the Record Office if it can be avoided. If it cannot be avoided, they should be away for the shortest possible time.
Of course, certain parts of the Kingdom, including Scotland and Northern Ireland, have particular claims to documents of exclusive or mainly exclusive interest to them. It is appropriate, of course, that the records of any Department or similar organisation whose functions deal wholly or mainly with Scottish affairs should be in Scotland. The position is safeguarded, indeed, in the Bill.
It is also proposed in the Third Schedule to repeal a proviso in the Public Records (Scotland) Act, 1937, which require the consent of the Master of the Rolls to transfer certain public records to Scotland, and to leave the rest of that provision intact. The effect of that would be to enable any document that merely mentions Scotland to be removed from the Public Record Office, or, indeed, not to be sent there at all.
Similar considerations apply to Northern Ireland, which is specifically mentioned in Clause 12. There has been in Northern Ireland a Public Record Office since 1921 and, as I understand it, documents of particular interest to Northern Ireland can be handed over under the Bill as it now stands. I should be interested to know from my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General whether that provision will extend back to the years before 1921. Of course, there 529 are many documents on the constitution and political history of Northern Ireland, which were originally in the old Irish Office arid are now in the Public Record Office, which would be of great interest to us to have in Belfast.
Secondly, it is important that the Lord Chancellor, when he is advised that particular records do not merit preservation in the Public Record Office, should give a direction that these records should be destroyed.
The decision whether documents should he destroyed is not one for an officer of the Public Record Office. His job is to preserve and maintain documents. A decision whether a document should be destroyed is partly one for the Departments concerned and also, I should think, for the trained historian, historical adviser or librarian. I think it would be wrong or misleading to seek to put any responsibility for destruction of documents on anyone in the Public Record Office. Their job is to preserve and maintain and make the documents available in the best possible way for the public.
It is a very important and difficult question to decide what should be preserved and what should not be preserved. There is a story, which may be apocryphal—I apologise to hon. Members if they have heard it before—that during the First World War one of the Government Departments was in flames and a senior civil servant was seen making a big effort to drag files out of the flames. Somebody said to him, "You are saving papers." He is alleged to have replied, "No, I am seeing that the right ones should be burned." It is a difficult question, and it is one, of course, to which considerations must apply which it is not always possible to embody in a legislative Measure.
The administrative machinery provided by the Bill seems to be rather complicated, but, however that may be, these provisions do underline the importance of the functions of the office of Keeper of Public Records which is to be created. I would think that he should be chosen with very great care. He should combine good judgment, high administrative ability and a real understanding of what the Public Record Office is and what it does. It would be very sad and unfortunate if this new post were to be 530 used simply as a means of disposing of some person who was, as it were, a misfit elsewhere. I hope that those considerations will be borne in mind when the appointment is made.
Subject to these comparatively minor observations, I am very happy to give my support to the Bill. It is important that the public records of this country should not merely be preserved properly but that they should be maintained in the best possible manner for use by members of the public. I believe that this can be done and that this Measure is designed to achieve that object, and I welcome it as a valuable contribution to the preservation of what is a priceless national heritage.
§ 8.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Ede (South Shields)
We have had a very interesting debate. I should like especially to refer to the speeches of the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) and my hon. Friend the Member for Acton (Mr. Sparks), who brought to our notice some of the practical issues involved. I could not help feeling that there must be grave jeopardy to public documents which are stored in a barn, for not merely domoth and rust … corrupt and thieves break through and stealbut rats and mice may even devour some of the public records. What is worse, they may devour bits and then leave to archæologists the most appalling controversies about what the words were which the rats and mice had attempted to digest. I sincerely hope that that aspect of the matter will be borne in mind.
We appear to be astoundingly careless about the preservation of extremely valuable documents which record the history of particular localities, of families and of public institutions. It is a matter of great grief to me, as a Trustee of the British Museum, that many public documents have for years been awaiting codification and indexing, lying about wrapped in sheets of brown paper. Of course, as the pile grows, it becomes increasingly difficult to be quite certain that appropriate preservation is maintained of documents which really ought to be associated with one another.
My hon. Friend the Member for Acton alluded to the difficulties which may arise from the dispersal of documents from a 531 central store to other places. If I may, I will give an example of the dangers of that kind of thing which came within my personal knowledge. Derby Day, 1920, was very wet. It was just about the first Derby to which most of the public who travelled in vehicles went from London to Epsom in motor cars. They put their cars on the Downs, where, under an inch or so of soil, there are about 360 feet of chalk. As the rain descended, though the floods did not come, the motor vehicles steadily sank. While none of them completely disappeared from view, some were in such a position that the urban council's tractor had to be sent up from its place at the sewage farm to pull them out, at a charge of two guineas a time. I was chairman of the Epsom Urban Council at the time, and we made a penny rate out of it. However, that has nothing to do with historic documents.
The Jockey Club drew the attention of the Epsom Grand Stand Association to the inconveniences which the public had suffered as the result of the incident I have just described and said that, unless steps were taken to improve matters, the licence of the Grandstand Association to run a race meeting under Jockey Club rules would be withdrawn. At the same time, it was hinted that the roads leading to the Downs were not nearly adequate to cope with modern traffic.
The local authority for the town was very perturbed at this and agreed to widen all the roads on the Downs. The roads were, in fact, widened by 50 per cent. of their former width. Anyone who sees them now and remembers that, until 1921, they were two-thirds of their present width, can have some idea of the problems which used to confront people.
One of the roads leading to the Downs was Fir Tree Road, in the Parish of Ewell, which was then in the area of Epsom R.D.C., and Epsom R.D.C. declined to make the road up because it said, "We get no advantage to the rates because of the race course, but we are put to very considerable inconvenience. We will not make up the road for the benefit of Epsom U.D.C." The Epsom Grandstand Association indicted the inhabitants of Ewell at Surrey Assizes for having this road in founderous condition, and a local justice of the peace 532 and the manager of Barclays Bank in Ewell sat in the dock at Guildford Assizes to answer this crime. A merciful judge said that they could go into the town of Guildford if they came back in a couple of hours because he thought the case might by then have reached a position at which their attendance might be helpful.
It was contended by Epsom R.D.C. that this road had originated when Ewell Common was enclosed in 1806 and that it was to become repairable by the inhabitants at large when the county surveyor certified that it had been made up to his satisfaction. The R.D.C. said that it had searched the records at Kingston, where the Surrey records are usually kept, and had not been able to find that certificate.
The Epsom Grand Stand Association produced the certificate, for the Association had searched at Newington Sessions. When the records of the County of Surrey were divided in 1889, when the County Council came into existence and when all the records relating to the new and smaller county of Surrey were supposed to go to Kingston, and those relating to South-West London were supposed to remain at Newington, the document in question was retained at Newington, and the solicitor for the Epsom Grand Stand Association, being an archæologist or an antiquarian of some repute, when he could not find the document at Kingston went to Newington and discovered it there.
Apparently quite unimportant documents may give rise to grave inconvenience if, on occasion when records have to be divided, the utmost care is not taken. Even then, human frailty being what it is, with the best of effort, there may occasionally be a mishap of the kind I have just instanced. That, I think, ought not to debar us from trying to keep records which might be of some public interest in localities rather than in a central store, keeping them in places where they can easily be consulted. Nothing is more important in these days than to convince people, particularly children, young persons and students, that these documents relate to people who lived and worked and died in the areas in which their memory should be cherished.
I recollect once having to distribute prizes at Hurstpierpoint School, one of 533 the Woodard Schools. The man who founded that school said that Latin should be taught as if it were the language of the market place, the law court and the racecourse. In a speech which I had to make after this had been duly recited, I said that I would give a special prize to any boy who would go with me to the next year's Derby and put into Latin what he heard during the five minutes before the race was run. I had no offers.
I am quite sure that every hon. Member here must have known the thrill which a child or a young person, or an American visitor, gets when he is taken into the Lords Library and is there shown the historic documents which are in our possession.
Here is the document on the strength of which Charles I was actually executed. Here is the signature, almost illegible now, of the President of the Court, and here is the signature, which apparently will never be illegible, of the man whose 50,000 soldiers were the real authority on which that warrant was executed. There, we can see that very document in which Charles I gave his promise that he would give his assent to the Bill that sent Strafford to the block, and the note at the bottom:If he must Dey, it wer a Charitie to repryve untill Saterday.And the Petition of Right. These are some individual items from the tremendous store of Parliamentary documents that is kept in the Victoria Tower. We have the three Minute Books of the House in the "No" Lobby. When I am in Opposition I always think that is the proper place for them.
I mention these things because there are some people who think that in dealing with public records we are dealing with dry-as-dust matters, which may be the concern of a few students, antiquarians and archivists, but these documents are, in fact, the records of the way in which this nation has grown and of its progress.
Therefore, I welcome this Bill. I hope that it means that adequate steps are to be taken to sort out the documents and to preserve those which are likely to be of interest. I hope that whoever has the job, if he is ever in a moment of doubt, will always, at any rate for that moment, decide on preservation rather than destruction. After all, we all know that 534 as sure as one destroys a document in one's own study, within a fortnight one wishes that one could refer to it once again.
As President of the County Councils Association, I have received a document from the Society of Clerks of the Peace of Counties and of Clerks of County Councils and I want to reinforce what the hon. Member for Taunton said about the position of these public officers, for it is quite clear that under Clause 4 of this Bill and other Clauses as well, they may very well be charged with heavy duties for the future in this respect.
In view of the fact that the offices can now be held separately, and in most of the populous counties are increasingly being held separately, I hope there will be a specific decision as to whether it is the clerk of the county council as such or the clerk of the peace as such who is to be responsible to the Lord Chancellor for the duties that are passed on to some officer in the county with regard to the matters raised in this Bill.
I hope there will be an increasing number of counties which will be able, as their public offices have to be rebuilt or extended, to take care to have efficient and sufficient muniment rooms where this kind of record can be preserved. It is curious that both the County Councils Association and the Society of Clerks of the Peace of Counties and of Clerks of County Councils, were invited last year to express their views upon the suggestions set out in the memorandum to the present Bill.
It must be remembered that the Grigg Committee took no evidence and made no recommendations as affecting three types of records that were the subject of the memorandum from the County Councils Association and the Society of Clerks of the Peace of Counties and of Clerks of County Councils, that is, the records of Quarter Sessions, magistrates' courts and coroners' courts. Emphasis also should be laid on the fact that the statement contained in the Ministry's memorandum, that the Bill would affirm the present responsibility of the clerk of the peace, has not been reproduced in the Bill despite the consultation with the two organisations I have mentioned. As a result, a memorandum dated 14th October, 1957, was sent to the Ministry of 535 Housing and Local Government, as follows:It is suggested that to remove all doubt the Public Records Bill should declare the records of Quarter Sessions and Petty Sessions to be public records, and should state what authority is responsible for their custody. The Bill would affirm the present responsibility of the Clerk of the Peace or of the Clerk of the Court for custody of the records, but it would enable him to select those worthy of permanent preservation and to destroy or dispose of the rest in accordance with the general provisions of the Bill and with due regard to such guidance as the Keeper of the Records may give. The Bill would empower the Clerk of the Peace or the Clerk of the Court, as the case may be, to transfer records for permanent preservation to any local repository maintained by a local authority, or to any other local repository, with the Lord Chancellor's approval.I understand it is some advantage that the Bill declares the records of quarter sessions to be public records, thereby determining the doubt which has existed over the last century, although Sir George Jessel, who I understand was Master of the Rolls at the time, expressed the opinion in 1877 that they fell within the meaning of "records" as defined by Section 20 of the Public Records Office Act, 1838.
There is one other matter to which I want to allude. I did not get much enlightenment, if the right hon. and learned Gentleman will allow me to say so, on Clause 4(1). This subsection gives difficulty. It is worded as follows:If it appears to the Lord Chancellor that a place outside the Public Record Office affords suitable facilities for the safe-keeping and preservation of records and their inspection by the public he may, after consultation with the authority who will be responsible for records deposited in that place, appoint it as a place of deposit as respects any class of public records selected for permanent preservation under this Act.There is no requirement that the authority in whom the building is vested shall consent to its being used. If, after consultation, the Lord Chancellor says, "It is a good place and, whether you like it or not, that's where they're going to be", it might be the cause of some difficulty. I hope that words will be inserted into the subsection to make clear not merely that consultation will take place, but that consent of those in whom the building is vested shall also be given.
536 There is one other matter. I had better read out a resolution of the County Councils Association dealing with costs. The Parliamentary Committee of the Association resolved—and this has subsequently been confirmed by the executive—That the financial responsibilities at county councils, in cases where records are placed in repositories owned by them, should be clarified and that, in particular, it should be made clear that expenditure connected with a direction to them under the terms of the Bill will be reimbursed by the Exchequer.That is all the more important in these days when, we understand, the Government intend to persist in their iniquitous decision to institute a system of general grant, popularly known as a "block grant" instead of the past arrangement. It should be possible for there to be friendly consultations between the County Councils Association and the Lord Chancellor's Department so that amicable arrangements can be made on that score.
The question has been raised, Who is the most appropriate Minister of the Crown to take over this duty? I do not attach very much importance to it. All I can say is that in recent years there has been a tendency to pile a lot of work on to the Lord Chancellor. The present Lord Chancellor is a glutton for work. No one ever has to ask him to do anything and to plead with him for very long to do it. It may be that in future it might be necessary, if the Bill goes through in its present form, to transfer, as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East suggested, the functions to another Department.
This is a valuable Bill, but it will need scrutiny in Committee where I hope, the Solicitor-General will not regard every word as verbally inspired and incapable of being removed; or that any suggestion that may be made cannot, with the right hon. and learned Gentleman's help and that of the Parliamentary draftsman, be clothed in such Parliamentary words as will not detract from the original perfection which a Minister introducing a Bill always regards it as possessing, when he submits it to us for Second Reading.
§ 9.10 p.m.
§ The Solicitor-General
If I may speak again, with the permission of the House, I shall seek to deal with some of the 537 matters which have been raised. I cannot conceivably deal with them all tonight. I am most grateful to hon. Members on both sides of the House who have given a welcome to the Bill. I think that the right formula with which to address the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) is gratias ago; and I should like to refer first to the matters with which he has been dealing. He knows that I cannot say anything about financial responsibility in this context, but I shall be happy to give what help I can towards getting the Bill into a form acceptable both to the local authorities about whom he is concerned and to the Government. I take his point that consultation is not the equivalent of consent. That is clearly a sound point, and I shall certainly consider it. I will undertake to contemplate putting down an Amendment in Committee to meet that need.
The right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann)—in what I venture to think was a charming speech—asked me about Clause 4. I think that I would have their support for the general idea that it is wise to allow records whose real romantic significance is local to be kept and deposited locally, and if there are suitable facilities for preservation and inspection by the public it is right that the Lord Chancellor should have the power to seek to have them deposited there.
My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton asked me about the probable appointees under subsection (5). It is not possible to describe in advance everyone who might be so appointed; it would naturally depend upon the circumstances. What my right hon. and noble Friend has in mind are people such as the clerk of a county council, the librarian of a university, the town clerk or whoever may be appropriate to a certain situation.
I appreciate the added point of the right hon. Member for South Shields that it will be necessary to say in what capacity somebody who occupies two official capacities will be appointed the responsible officer. There is nothing in the Bill which prevents that being done; nor is it necessary to make any enactment to ensure that it is done.
The hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Sparks), in a most interesting speech, asked a number of questions about administration, and added the complaint 538 that the Bill did not lay down these matters—but he would be the first to recognise that it is not necessary to have legislation in order to attain the objects about which he is concerned. He made a most valuable point, which I had omitted to mention, namely, that one of the effects of the Bill will be to regulate the flow of these documents into the Public Record Office. It should be a great help to the staff there, and there should be a most satisfactory result if the Bill works as we hope it will.
I hope that if he has time the hon. Member will look at paragraph 191 of the Report, on the subject of dispersal. It seems to me an attractive idea that the best judge on behalf of the consumers—that is to say, people who do research—are the staff who work in the Public Record Office. The decision is probably best left to them, and they should be, as the Committee evidently thought, the sole judges of what particular arrangements can best be made to meet the needs of research workers.
§ Mr. Sparks
Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman bear those people in mind for membership of the Lord Chancellor's advisory council? It is most important that some of them should be represented on it. Many people come to London from outlying areas, and it is convenient for them to go to Chancery Lane. If they have to go outside London to consult certain documents it takes up an enormous amount of their time—and time is very important.
§ The Solicitor-General
I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman. In dealing with that point I will indicate what are the terms, and I am sure that the words he has used will be noted.
I wanted to give him one reassurance. At present, the Public Record Office has enough space at Ashridge for fifteen years; if someone wants a specific document at Chancery Lane, it could be provided with reasonable convenience. Perhaps there is some virtue in allowing the Public Record Office to be the judge of convenience.
I wish to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Hyde). He should not suspect the Home Office of being the Department referred to in the paragraph mentioned by the hon. 539 Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher). The Home Office has played the game very well—if I may use that expression. All the Home Office records up to 1900 have been passed over, and considering the burden of paper work attaching to that Department, I should have thought that unworthy of censure.
§ The Solicitor-General
Then may I "de-learned" the right hon. Gentleman, and say that he keeps supplying us with most attractive examples. I have very early recollections of the unmade-up Fir Tree Lane, having been born within fifty yards of it.
The hon. Member for Islington, East asked a number of questions, and I do not think that I can answer them all without detaining the House too long. The hon. Gentleman asked the impossible when he requested an assurance that an adequate staff to carry out the recommendations of the Committee would be available. It is the word "adequate" which creates the difficulty about giving such an assurance. I am sure that he will understand that any assurance I give might fall down on that word, which is a matter of opinion.
§ The Solicitor-General
My hon. and learned Friend wishes me to get on with what I have to say, so that he can start doing what he wants to do.
Membership of the Advisory Council was discussed. The hon. Member for Islington, East, I think by a slip, was a little unkind to the Grigg Committee which included representatives of the universities in its suggestions for the Council. The Bill is wide enough to allow the Lord Chancellor, no doubt on advice from every quarter, to make up that Advisory Council, apart from the 540 Master of the Rolls, with any person having any qualifications he desires.
I can give the hon. Member the assurance he asked about Clause 5(1). The general rule will be exactly in the way the Clause is enacted; that they should be open to inspection after fifty years.
The hon. Gentleman asked about Cabinet papers. No one is destroying Cabinet papers. Problems will arise about them in due course which can be looked at after this Bill becomes law One would assume that there will be discussions between the parties and the question of Royal Assent would arise and so forth; but the hon. Gentleman need have no anxiety about Cabinet papers being destroyed.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about Clause 7 and the operative distinction between the records of the Chancery of England and other documents in that context. If the hon. Gentleman wants further details, it is better that we should discuss that at some other stage. But if, with his scholarly skill, he likes to check up the particular line agreed as between the Lord Chancellor and the Master of the Rolls he should look, at Giuseppi's Guide to Public Records, 1923, and take from that what the records of the Chancery of England mean in this context.
It would be better at another stage of the Bill to have a debate on the problem of whether the Lord Chancellor is the appropriate Minister of the Crown to whom to entrust these duties, because that subject obviously demands a fuller discussion than can be given to it now. I was sorry to hear the hon. Member for Islington, East say that the Law Officers of the Crown in this House do not adequately stand up and receive the barbed shafts which hon. Members desire to deliver at the breast of the Lord Chancellor. We do our best. I hope, being at the receiving end of those darts, that we shall not be regarded as an inadequate target.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 38 (Committal of Bills),