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Schedule 2

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.

Repeals

Amendments made: No. 30, in page 9, column 3 leave out lines 22 to 24 and insert—

In section 2, in subsection (1) the words "(as defined in the Cinematograph Act 1952)" and subsection (4).'.

No. 31, in page 9, line 35, column 3 after '3', insert `in Part I'.

No. 32, in page 9, line 37, at end insert—

`1971 c.23.The Courts Act 1971.In Schedule 9. in Part I, the entry relatingto section 6 of the Cinematograph Act 1952.'.—[Mr. Peter Lloyd.]

1.59 pm

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I thank all those who have helped in the passage of the Bill—in the Home Office, in the House and outside it—and particularly my right hon. Friend and my hon. and learned Friend the Ministers of State, Home Office, who have both been very supportive of the measure from its inception and have in turn given clarity and illumination to our debates on Second Reading and in Committee and today.

I have been impressed by the unanimous support for the principle of the Bill shown by hon. Members who have spoken throughout all stages of its consideration; it has been most helpful. The complete absence of partisan attitudes, although plenty of independence of mind, has made the experience a refreshing one.

I direct my thanks especially to the hon. Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill), who has been searchingly supportive in defending me and my measure against encroaching Government legislation. The hon. Lady told me last night that she would be in the Chamber for only part of the morning. She regretted very much that an unavoidable engagement would take her away. She wrote to me to that effect when she left the Chamber. I wish to place on record the fact that she has taken a great interest in the Bill. She has been extremely helpful in guiding it towards the statute book and in raising constructive and important matters.

I do not claim that the Bill is ambitious. It does not seek to offer comprehensive answers to the considerable problems of freedom and morality that are raised periodically in the House and outside. If I had to criticise the content of any of the speeches which have been made during our debates, it would be on the ground that too much seems to be expected of the Bill. It was designed to meet several problems which have arisen in the workings of the cinema licensing system, which has operated for many years. The legislation upon which that system is based dates back to 1909. It was modified in 1952 and it was only to be expected more than 30 years later, with the technological progress that has taken place, that it would be considered highly desirable to make further changes.

One of the main aims of the Bill is to bring the Cinematograph Acts into the video age. That is something that rightly worried my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr). A central aim of the Bill is to ensure that Parliament's intentions in its earlier pieces of legislation cannot be flouted because an exhibitor is using video equipment rather than a conventional film projector. That is one of the major reasons for bringing the Bill to the House.

Such public attention as the Bill has received has been concentrated upon another aspect, and that is quite understandable. Commercial video exhibitions to large audiences are not yet—I emphasise "yet"—commonplace. However, the blatant evasion of licensing control by the so-called cinema clubs has been increasingly noticeable in central London and in a few other major cities. The system of cinema licensing which governs the exhibition of films is widely acknowledged to be fair and to reflect the standards which are generally acceptable in society.

I said something on Second Reading about the nature of the material that is shown in clubs. But now I will confine myself to emphasising that the existence of those clubs makes nonsense of the system under which the legitimate cinema is regulated by laws passed by Parliament.

Cinema licensing is not only a mechanism for the censoring of films. It is equally concerned with the physical safety of those who attend cinemas. The provision of adequate fire precautions is a condition upon which local authorities will insist before licensing a cinema. Frequently there are inadequate safeguards for the members of what are presently unlicensed cinema clubs, which are often set up in cramped back rooms or cellars that are reached by passing up or down narrow staircases. I am sure that no one wishes to see the horrors of the Dublin discotheque fire re-enacted in one of these clubs.

The exemption of the clubs from the normal licensing requirements is an anomaly arising out of the drafting of the Cinematograph Act 1952. In a commendable attempt to ensure that bona fide film societies such as those run by film enthusiasts would not be caught by provisions intended to regulate the commercial cinema, the Act provided that exhibitions to which the public are admitted without payment, are exempt from regulation.

However, the abuse of the concession by commercial operators is not a particularly easy matter to remedy in legislative terms, as we have found during our debates in the House and in Committee. The owners and managers of the clubs have shown themselves to be extremely adept at evading the requirements of the law. A commercial cinema may organise itself as a club offering immediate membership to prospective patrons and thereby claiming exemption from the licensing requirement. If that loophole is blocked there is a risk that patrons will be allowed in free, but paying a disguised entry fee in the shape of grossly inflated charges for ice cream or confectionery or for the privilege of hanging up their coats.

The Bill will alter that present unsatisfactory state of affairs and will guard against new abuses by introducing a new test. If the exhibition is organised for private gain, it will not be exempt from the licensing requirements laid down in present legislation. However, there may be circumstances in which the prosecution will find it difficult to prove that a given exhibition was promoted for private gain.

One possibility that the Bill specifically counters is that a non-profit making front company may be set up which takes money from the public for admission to a film show and which forwards that money to the real organiser under the guise of payment for the facilities used. In that case the front company may try to claim that the exhibition has not been promoted for private gain.

That example may appear to be far-fetched, but I am concerned that the Bill should be watertight, unlike its predecessors. That means that, wherever it is possible to anticipate the dodges that will be used, the prosecution should be given the means of dealing with them.

Accordingly clause 2, which was discussed at considerable length in Committee, takes great care to specify the circumstances in which an exhibition will be considered to have been promoted for private gain. Those changes will be particularly useful for the area in which my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) is interested. They are useful not merely for the courts but for making it easier and more straightforward for authorities at the sharp end, such as the police, to take the action necessary to enforce the law.

The redefinition of cinemas that will be subject to cinematograph licensing is the nub of the Bill. After the Bill comes into force, private cinema clubs, organised for profit, will need to be licensed by the local authority in the same way as any other commercial cinema. Assuming that the owner or manager is successful in obtaining a licence, he will be subject to the regulations and conditions made by the local authority, whatever they may be. It will be for the local authority to decide, as it does at present in relation to other cinemas, what conditions it should attach to the licence in respect of the sort of film that may be shown.

On Second Reading the reaction of several hon. Members to the proposals was that they were admirable in principle, but the methods of enforcement that were available and the sanctions against breaches of the rules required close scrutiny. It was said in that debate and in Committee that the sex industry was highly lucrative. As I said when I moved the amendments to Clause 6, I accept that it is necessary to ensure that the courts have adequate powers to deter potential offenders. As a result of those amendments, the more serious offences under the Act will now be punishable on summary conviction by a fine of anything up to £10,000.

With the exception of the penalties provided in the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill for breach of the regulations concerning sex shops, such a high fine for offences triable only summarily is unparalleled. It reflects a determination, which has been supported by the Government, to ensure that it will not be financially advantageous to flout the licensing laws. If the offences are continually repeated, it will be possible to proceed by injunction with the sanction of prison as a last resort.

The Bill also takes the opportunity to rationalise powers of enforcement. Clearly a balance needs to be struck between the need to ensure that licence conditions and regulations are being complied with and the right of legitimate and scrupulous cinemas to go about their business without too much interference that was stressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway). I believe that the Bill succeeds quite well in striking that balance. Three different bodies have responsibilities for enforcement—the police, officials of the local authority in its capacity as a licensing body, and the fire service. The police, local authorities and fire officials will have general powers of inspection in respect of licensed premises where an exhibition is about to be given.

In addition, a fire officer will be able to inspect licensed premises—I return to the concern expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Proctor)—on giving not less than 24 hours' notice of an intention to ascertain whether the terms of the licence are being complied with. Entry to unlicensed premises will require the police or licensing authority to obtain a warrant. As is usual with other powers of this type, it will be a criminal offence to obstruct any person in exercising these powers of enforcement. I believe that no scrupulous cinema operator will find the powers onerous and that they are the minimum necessary for effective enforcement against the less scrupulous.

The final aspect of the Bill to which I should like to draw attention is the revised procedures governing applications for licences and appeals against licensing decisions. The House agreed earlier that fire authorities should be given a clear opportunity to comment when applications are received. I believe that this is a proper recognition of the important role of the cinema licensing system in ensuring fire safety.

Clauses 3 and 4 make a number of other specific reforms. It has long been the case that a licence holder who appeals against revocation of his licence may continue to have the benefit of the licence until the appeal is determined. There is at present no such provision for a licence holder whose application for renewal is refused. There seems to be no good reason for this difference of approach. My Bill will rectify the anomaly by providing that, if a person appeals against refusal to renew his licence, the licence shall remain in force pending the outcome of the appeal. This small but salutary change has been recommended by the licensing authorities and the Cinematograph Exhibitors Association.

Similarly, clause 4 provides for the automatic extension of a licence pending and during an appeal against refusal to renew or transfer a licence. Several hon. Members, especially the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) in Committee, were concerned that these provisions might be exploited. I think it would be helpful to say why I believe these provisions will not have this result. Subsections (3) and (4) of clause 4 that provide for the continuation of licences pending appeals apply only to those premises that have already been issued with a licence. They will not therefore assist the sex cinema proprietor who currently runs unlicensed premises and who applies for a licence. Nor will they assist any person who attempts to ignore the licensing requirement or who breaches a licence condition.

At the beginning of my remarks, I said that this was not a particularly ambitious Bill. Nevertheless, I believe, especially from the comments that have been made outside and during its passage through the House, that it will be widely welcomed. I am encouraged in that belief by today's debate. The Bill will form an addition to what is already a complex body of legisation. That has been made clear in the exchanges today. A complex system of legislation now regulates the cinema trade. In the interests of simplicity and ease of reference, I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Minister has repeated that, with all convenient and deliberate speed, a consolidating measure will be brought to the statute book. In the meantime, I commend the Bill to the House.

2.14 pm

I have great pleasure in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Lloyd) on his Bill. I am no great authority on the matter, but it seems to me an extremely complex Bill for a private Member to have successfully steered thus far through the House. I am sure that it is an important measure, and it has received support from both sides of the House. I was especially heartened by the response of my right hon. Friend the Minister and I believe that that augurs well for its future.

Safety is an important issue and although many of us would wish to see elements in the Bill related to other aspects, such as pornography, the question of safety probably overrides everything else. Undoubtedly many of these quasi cinema operators tend to take advantage of various parts of the law to ensure that they can skirt round the requirements that are generally applied in public places. The strict rules that we have laid down ever since the great fire of 1666 have been utilised to ensure the safety of the public, especially in central London.

Although we are aware that many operators find those stringent regulations extremely costly, in the vast majority of cases they are very necessary. In cinemas, which are largely dark places, some difficulty would arise if the public could not easily find their way out during a fire or some other emergency.

However, I wish to add a word of caution, because we are all well aware that much money is involved in this business, especially in Soho. As soon as such a worthy measure is introduced, rather as with taxation measures, we find a portion of the legal profession turning its attention to ways of getting round the new legislation. I hope that it is not beyond the wit of the Home Office to observe the matter continuously so that if any problem should arise it can be dealt with fairly quickly, perhaps in the amending legislation that has been promised. However, I understand from the hon. and learned Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Lyons) that that may be only a consolidating measure rather than a genuine new legislative measure. If that is the case, there would be no such opportunity for us to make good any loopholes that the skilful lawyer may manage to find in the Bill.

I appreciate my hon. Friend's concern. However, he should agree that there is a clear test of whether an organisation or establishment is licensed. That is one of the most advantageous parts of the Bill. The only way in which people can get round it is by claiming that they come in one of the exempt categories. That would become much more difficult than at present, where there seem to be two dangers. The first is the possibility of corruption and the second is that corruption arises because of definitions of pornography or obscenity. The Bill at least has the advantage of bringing in the clear test—is there a licence, or not?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I did not wish to give the impression that I was not in favour of the Bill's provisions. They are admirable and go as far as any hon. Member in the Chamber today would consider possible in closing all the known loopholes. However, from my knowledge of taxation and other matters, I am aware of how hard people work to try to get round regulations as soon as they are brought in.

I was merely trying to draw to my right hon. Friend's attention a matter of which I am sure he is already aware, that because of the vast sums of money involved in the operation of unlicensed cinemas and what they have to offer, as soon as the Bill is passed there will undoubtedly be lawyers and others who will do everything possible to find a loophole.

I am delighted that, as far as possible, my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham has closed the known loopholes, but I should not like to think that we would close our minds to the possibility that some loophole will be found, because undoubtedly that can and does happen. If it does happen, I hope that my right hon. Friend will readily bring forward some measure to make it not worth while.

I mention this matter at some length, because I feel that if at this stage we can say that that is our intention it will be less productive for people to spend a lot of money on expensive legal advice to discover ways in which they can get round the legislation. If my right hon. Friend can give the assurance that to do so will give such people only a short-term advantage, that will deter them from even bothering to look. In view of the way that my hon. Friend's Bill has been received, it is clear that that would be the wish of the House. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to give such an undertaking.

2.22 pm

I also congratulate the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Lloyd) on having got his Bill thus far. A major result of the Bill when it reaches the statute book will be to extend censorship. The British Board of Film Censors will take control of the sex film clubs. I am unhappy about the extension of censorship generally. When I first heard about the Bill I was exceedingly uneasy. I was driven to support it because it seemed to me that hard pornography—the attitude that sexual satisfaction could be derived by inflicting great cruelty on women—was becoming so prevalent that the clubs had to be brought within the remit of the British Board of Film Censors. It is not a proud day when one extends censorship, but it seems to me that the reality of the situation demands that we have some standards of conduct for this sort of situation. That is why the Bill has received all-party support on Second Reading and since.

2.24 pm

I join my colleagues in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Lloyd) on the introduction of this timely Bill and on his skill in piloting it through all its stages to Third Reading.

This is a big Bill for a private Member to introduce, with its 10 clauses and two schedules. Its impact on society will have a narrow frontage but will be important. As has been said by my hon. Friend, it extends the 1909 and 1952 Acts. It is 30 years since the House addressed itself to legislation in this area.

The need for the Bill was outlined by my hon. Friend under two headings. First, he referred to the new technological developments that have taken place in the last 30 years or so, particularly with the invention of video. Secondly, he referred to the emergence of the distasteful, bogus private clubs which have mushroomed in the past 10 or 15 years, particularly in London and our other big cities. Therefore, those twin developments were the motivating force behind the legislation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Fareham made it clear that he did not seek to catch, or make life more difficult for, genuine organisations, such as film clubs and societies. Many such clubs and societies are popular in my constituency and, no doubt, in the constituencies of all hon. Members. My hon. Friend has tried to ensure that he would not catch the genuine film clubs and societies in the strictures of his licensing scheme and we are grateful to him for having skilfully avoided that pitfall.

My hon. Friend the Member for Fareham has introduced a licensing scheme. As my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Bottomley) rightly said, the possession or non-possession of a licence is at the heart of the Bill and all else flows from it. My hon. Friend the Member for Fareham has considered more than the licensing question and we are all grateful to him for that. He has paid particular attention to the fire service, and that is important. It is vital to consider the safety of cinemas, particularly as there have mushroomed in London certain clubs that tend, by their nature, to be small and to have been set up at as low a cost as possible in order to extract the maximum profit in the shortest period of time. Cutting corners on safety may be the hallmark of some of those bogus private clubs.

Does not my hon. Friend agree that it is a question not only of the establishments in the centre of London and round the main railway stations of our big cities but also—and even more important—a question of ensuring that operators do not have a chance to move into areas such as Basildon and Eltham to spread their attractive filth and dangerous conditions? We must ensure that they do not attract schoolchildren, students and ordinary people who, if the opportunity exists, may occasionally be tempted into these obscene firetraps.

My hon. Friend is quite right. It is not only physical safety that is important, but moral and mental safety too. We are all grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham for his safety provisions. However, in addition the Bill makes provision for increasing the fines on summary conviction. It has been pointed out that, under the 1952 Act, the maximum fine is now a mere £200. We are grateful to my hon. Friend for having given way to the clear pressure on Second Reading and in Committee to increase the maximum fine on summary conviction for serious offences from the £1,000 that was in the Bill on Second Reading to the £10,000 that was inserted on Report. That is much more sensible and more in keeping with public feeling on these matters, and much more in keeping with the economic climate of the day.

I am therefore delighted to support my hon. Friend's Bill and I congratulate him on having, as a private Member, almost placed on the statute book such an excellent measure.

2.29 pm

I, too, wish to support my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Lloyd), and to congratulate him, particularly——

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Friday 7 May.

Firearms Bill

Order for consideration, not amended (in the Standing Committee), read.

To be further considered upon Friday 7 May.

Trade Descriptions (Amendment) Bill

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [22 January], That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Debate to be resumed upon Friday 7 May.

Walkers (Access To Countryside) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Second Reading deferred till Friday 7 May.

Garden Supplies (Sunday Trading) Bill

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [12 February], That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Debate to be resumed what day? No day named.

Succession To The Crown Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Second Reading deferred till Friday 7 May.

Shops Bill Lords

Order for Second Reading read.

Second Reading deferred till Friday 7 May.

Defence

Ordered,

That Sir Frederic Bennett and Mr. Cranley Onslow be discharged from the Defence Committee and Mr. Michael Marshall and Mr. Chris Patten be added to the Committee. —[Mr. Philip Holland, on behalf of the Committee of Selection]

Scottish Affairs

Ordered,

That Mr. Alexander Pollock be discharged from the Committee on Scottish Affairs and Mr. Nicholas Fairbairn be added to the Committee.—[Mr. Philip Holland, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.]

Public Records (Wilson Report)

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.