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Public Records (Wilson Report)

Volume 22: debated on Friday 30 April 1982

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. David Hunt.]

2.31 pm

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise in the House the Government's response to the Wilson report on public records. I begin by quoting the view of Lord Acton, which the Government should constantly bear in mind, that

"to keep one's archives barred to historians is tantamount to leaving one's history to one's enemies."
I believe that that is what the Government's response effectively does.

I pay tribute to Sir Duncan Wilson and his committee of three for the tremendous amount of work that they put into their substantial report. I do not feel able to pay so much tribute to the rather thin and intellectually unworthy response by the Government to that report.

First, I make one general remark. The preservation of our archival heritage is a sacred duty on any Government. It involves preserving records from being either destroyed or allowed to deteriorate through neglect or inefficiency, or, even worse, being deliberately destroyed or withheld either through misguided concepts of security or through a determination to ensure that the flagrant abuse of Government power should never see the light of day.

It is now commonly accepted that much material relating to Suez disappeared with Sir Anthony Eden's resignation. It is also generally agreed that when the Falkland Islands crisis is over a very full inquiry will be necessary. It would be a scandal if, even now—I do not say that this is happening, but if Suez is anything to go by, it may be—files are going missing to save embarrassment to those politicians whom the inquiry may well find guilty of grievous political misjudgment. It is worth saying that to put the matter in context.

I wish to speak about selection, access and resources in discussing the response to the report. The Wilson committee was broadly critical of the system for the preservation of records. That should not be seen as a criticism of civil servants generally in Departments or in the Public Records Office.

The response to the criticism contains two of the tetchiest paragraphs that I have ever read in a White Paper. I understand that the Wilson committee did not give specific instances, not because it did not have them, but because it did not wish to embarrass people. Paragraph 10 of the response states:
"The Report conveys the general impression that there has been substantial destruction of valuable material, although little specific evidence is adduced to support this view. This theme was taken up in press reports at the time of publication of the Report and by the general public, some of whom made this the main plank of their comments."
Quis' excuse s' accuse. There appears to be a sense of guilt in those words.

The response continues:
"It is not possible to assert with confidence that the implementation of the Grigg system has or has not led to serious losses of valuable material, because 30 years have not yet elapsed since it was introduced in 1954. Nevertheless, since then, over 40 miles of records have been transferred to the PRO and the number of visits by readers has risen from 25,000 to 99,000 in 1980–81."
I am glad about the increased number of visits, but I am not impressed by the 40 miles of records. Have the right 40 miles of records been transferred?

The Wilson committee made various suggestions to that end, such as sector panels—panels of acknowledged experts outside the Civil Service to co-operate with civil servants, particularly in Departments, to ensure the right selection. The Government's response was a blank "No". The excuse is lack of resources. Trotting out the lack of resources as a regular excuse when one knows that it is not the real reason is intellectually dishonest. It is eyewash to suggest that lack of resources is the inhibiting factor. The reason is the fear of an inward-looking Civil Service that its methods, and sometimes its incompetence, will be exposed.

The Wilson committee talks of particular instance papers. That is important. The whole academic trend has changed since the Wilson committee and it is still changing quickly. Computers change the nature of academic research. Our academics could produce a new and tremendously useful insight into our immediate history if they could have a proper look at the particular instance papers.

I give one example from the last few years—epidemiology. That makes it essential to survey a wide range of medical records, whereas the whole thrust of selection at the moment is to keep particular records and there does not seem to be any real policy for papers relating to particular instances.

Over the next few months I want to do some testing of the Government on this question. I shall ask the Solicitor-General a question, which he will not be able to answer now, but I hope that he will write to me about it. I am very interested in the records kept in the Home Office concerning miscarriages of justice. I am interested because of my involvement with the Confait case.

I was told that every year the Home Office receives about 4,000 allegations of miscarriage of justice. All these are what might be described as particular instance papers. I want to know how they are dealt with. When shall I be allowed to learn the real story of Confait and how that miscarriage of justice took place? When will the public at large be able to review the way in which the law works, by studying the allegations of miscarriages of justice that flow into the Home Office? When will academics be able to look at them? Where can I find a description of how the Home Office deals with that subject? It is only one of about 1,000 in the Government. May I go and look at them? If not, why not? That is one example of the sort of question that I ask now and shall pursue later.

The response to access to withheld papers is the most flagrant in the entire White Paper. The Wilson committee, particularly for papers held over the 30-year limit—and those which never find their way into the Public Record Office in the first place because of so-called security or embarrassment problems—made a very modest proposal. It suggested that Privy Council members of the very eminent Lord Chancellor's advisory committee—people such as Lord Trend, a Privy Councillor and member of the Lord Chancellor's committee—might form themselves into a small sub-committee and review the need to keep papers secret, and advise the Lord Chancellor accordingly. What could be fairer than that? What possible objection could there be to Lord Trend looking at some of those papers?

The response of the Government once again was "No, we are not having that". In paragraph 40 there is an extraordinary sentence, which the person who wrote it cannot have meant. It says:
"It has been decided that the most suitable arrangement for supplying the Lord Chancellor with independent advice"—
I am sure that "independent" must be a misprint, because it cannot be right—
"would be for the Secretary of the Cabinet to assume this role."
From what earthly point of view can the Secretary of the Cabinet be thought to be independent in this area? He is not remotely independent. The Solicitor-General knows that and the Government know it.

It is a disgraceful response. I understand that it was prepared by a couple of Cabinet Committees composed purely of officials, with no Ministers involved. We are told that they included "Misc 3" and "Misc 58", with an undersecretary, Mr. John Dempster, as its chairman. That is a rotten way to treat Parliament on such an important issue. Ministers ought to have been far more closely involved.

The Government's cynical response is that Sir Robert Armstrong can look at the records, but Parliament's representatives on the Lord Chancellor's advisory committee, the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack), my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Mrs. Taylor) and the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Wainwright)—all respected hon. Members—are not allowed to look at the records. That is a paradigm of how the Civil Service regards Parliament, and there must be a parliamentary response to that.

Section 5(1) of the Public Records Act allows records to be released within the 30-year rule. The Government have purported to accept that provision, but have added that records can be released only when they are put in the Public Record Office—which is after 25 years. They have introduced a Catch-22 rule. That is wholly against the spirit of the Croham rule and the way that Governments were responding a few years ago.

Lord Teviot has requested me to ask a specific question. May we have an announcement about the feasibility study on the PRO building in Chancery Lane?

I pay tribute to the staff of the Public Record Office, wherever they are. They need more resources, and the Solicitor-General must address himself to that. All that the PRO wants is peanuts. A tiny amount of money would preserve many records.

The Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts recently had to consider film archives, because we are losing records that can never be replaced. The same is true of the building in Hayes where records that are crucial to the history of this country are rotting away and pieces of the social and political fabric of our national heritage are disappearing.

I support the Wilson committee's view that these matters should remain with the Lord Chancellor's Department. If the Lord Chancellor drew himself up to his full height he could be quite tough in Government, He has an advisory committee chaired by Lord Denning, who, it is rumoured, has written a tough letter to the Government on this issue. I hope that the Solicitor-General will tell us something about that.

I said that there has to be more parliamentary action. The scandal of the Select Committee system is that no Committee was set up to look after the Law Officers. However, the Select Committee of which I am chairman is extremely interested in the issue, because of the academic matters involved. I have consulted Conservative Members on the Committee and I hope that we will be taking more evidence on the subject.

The Chairman of the Select Committee on the Treasury and Civil Service, the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann), has authorised me to say that he also feels extremely strongly about the inadequacy of the Government's response and hopes that the Solicitor-General's response to the debate will be more robust.

2.48 pm

The hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) has raised a number of important and interesting points. I have no hope of dealing with them all. I shall reply to as many as I can, but whatever selection I make is bound to be wrong and I ask the hon. Gentleman to bear with me.

I echo what the hon. Gentleman said about the nature of our duty to preserve the records of our history. He will know, though the public may not, that the Government have endorsed that view clearly in the White Paper which states in paragraph 3 that we
"endorse the opening statement in the Report that 'the public records of England and Wales form one of the single richest archives in the world and a most precious part of the national heritage' … The Government accept their obligation to ensure that this invaluable national asset is safeguarded not only for the present generation but for posterity."
I want to deal first with the feasibility study, because I know from debates on the subject how important it is to right hon. and hon. Members. I can assure the hon. Member for Lewisham, West that the Government regard it as important as well.

I begin by announcing the results of the feasibility study, the study being into the possibility of concentrating the Public Record Office on a single site at Kew. It is quite insufferable at the moment that most valuable records, some in quite delicate condition, have to be kept in four different places and moved from place to place. The Government have made no secret of the fact that they make it a high priority to get the records together as soon as possible.

The report of the study was received by the Lord Chancellor at the end of December last year. Right hon. and hon. Members will be glad to know that it demonstates that it is physically feasible to concentrate the Public Record Office on a single site at Kew. That would be in place of the office being split between four sites, which is inefficient and uneconomic. The feasibility study shows that in the long run it would be cheaper as well as so obviously better to have the records on one site. However, it can be done only after substantial building work at a cost of about £12 million. Expenditure of that order cannot be justified in the present economic climate, and the proposal for total concentration at Kew is therefore now in abeyance.

The resource point made by the hon. Gentleman has to be reviewed in a wider context than that of the report. There are definite competing priorities for such money as can be made available. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman takes the view that, to the extent that resources are available, the getting together of the records in one place enjoys a higher priority in the competition for those resources.

As I say, the proposal for total concentration must remain in abeyance. But it has been agreed that the Public Record Office may maintain its present staff level of 406 without further reduction. Although this will constrict the office if the demand for its services continues to increase, it will permit the office to plan ahead for the level of activity that it can hope to maintain in the various areas of its work.

There are no immediate plans for discontinuing public access to records in the reading rooms at Chancery Lane. I am glad to be able to announce that because I know how much that will be valued by those who use the reading rooms at Chancery Lane. At one stage it looked as though they might lose that facility.

Separate consideration will be given to the maintenance work needed on the Chancery Lane building, to the extension of records storage accommodation at Kew, which will in any event be full by the early 1990s, and to the transfer to the Public Record Office of the 100-year-old records of births, marriages and deaths from the General Register Office. Though the full plan must remain in abeyance, I hope that those lesser measures about which I have been able to tell the House will bring satisfaction to the people concerned in the use of the Public Record Office and the preservation of the records.

I have to decide now which of the remaining points I should seek to deal with. I take one about which I can agree with the hon. Member for Lewisham, West in a very few words. He said that he intended to put to me a question which I could not answer. I have to agree with him. I shall have to send him a written reply about it.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about access to Home Office records about complaints of miscarriages of justice and similar documents. I cannot answer that specific question, which touches on the fringe of an important distinction which must be drawn and which is very relevant to the most important other point that the hon. Gentleman put to me, that about section 5(1).

We are dealing with two separate matters with regard to accessibility of documents. One is the steady release of information from Government all the time, improved, I think the hon. Gentleman would agree, by the implementation of the Croham directive in 1977. There will never be full agreement on whether the right amount of information is being given. Some will say that it is too much and some that it is not enough. But there is that steady flow of information, which is in no way affected, one way or the other, by the Public Records Act or section 5(1).

Therefore, the idea in some people's minds that section 5(1) puts a limitation on the release of information is wrong. The section relates only to documents that have already reached the Public Record Office. Those are only the ones that have been selected and transferred, and even in relation to them the Lord Chancellor may direct that they be released within the 30 years.

Apart from those documents, there is all the body of information, all the documents, released before being transferred. Those documents are not affected by section 5(1), a fact that is not fully understood. Lack of that knowledge and understanding leads to people believing that, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, section 5(1) in some way imposes a restriction on the release of information. It imposes no limitation, except in so far as the documents concerned have already reached the Public Record Office.

The general release of information is not affected by anything in the Wilson report, a report that refers to the parallel procedures designed for a different purpose—not really for the making available of records but for their preservation. The steps necessary for their preservation having been taken, and the time and circumstances in which they should be made available having been stated, it is then that the very important question that the hon. Gentleman raised about selection arises—the selection of documents for permanent preservation.

I do not have time to follow up that matter. I shall deal with it afterwards, because I want to say something about what I think to be the hon. Gentleman's other most important point—the proposal that there should be a Committee of Privy Councillors. It is important to fit them into the context of what we are talking about. There is, first, the information to which the preservation provisions do not apply. Then we come to the question of the selection of documents for permanent preservation.

Once documents have been preserved they must go to the Public Record Office, and the general rule is that they must not be released to the public until 30 years have passed. There are two important exceptions. There are provisions under which the Lord Chancellor can authorise a Department to retain documents, and therefore they do not have to go to the Public Record Office, and the statutory provisions about opening them do not apply. The other exception, which concerns the hon. Gentleman and all of us, is that the Lord Chancellor is authorised to say that even when 30 years have elapsed the documents will not be opened to the public.

It is in connection with both of those delaying procedures that the question arises whether we should have a committee of Privy Councillors. The Government's view is that it is right that there should be a change in the procedure. The Lord Chancellor would welcome further advice on those difficult and important questions, but it is felt, for reasons stated in the report, that the means suggested are not appropriate.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about asking the Permanent Secretary for advice. "Independent" here means independent of any Department and therefore not influenced by any departmental considerations in deciding whether the documents should be retained or sent to the Public Record Office. The word has significance in that context. It is not the kind of independent body that the hon. Gentleman would want, but it will be independent of all departmental considerations and influences.

I hope that I have made it clear that we regard the process of selection as being important. Of course it is. It could lead, intentionally or unintentionally, to the loss of documents that should be retained. It would be remarkable if we could be assured that we had a system that did not have those risks. The only question is what it is practical to do to improve the present system. The report deals with that matter as well. Notice is taken of what is said about the importance of that part of the operation. Tests will be carried out from time to time. There will be sampling to try to get a better idea whether the system is working——

The Question having been proposed after half-past Two o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at one minute past Three o'clock, till Tuesday 4 May, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 1 April.