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Access to Archives

Volume 703: debated on Tuesday 16 November 2021

[Esther McVey in the Chair]

Before I call Chris Evans, I wish to make a short statement about the sub judice resolution. I have been advised that there are legal proceedings this week before the information rights tribunal. I am further advised that the House’s sub judice resolution of 2001 does not apply to first-tier tribunals, so those legal proceedings are not sub judice. All hon. Members should, however, be mindful of matters that may be the subject of future legal proceedings, which may, at a later stage, become sub judice. I thank the hon. Member for his courtesy in consulting the Table Office in advance of the debate.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered access to archives purchased with public money.

Thank you, Ms McVey, for your chairmanship; I look forward to your stout resolution as we move through the debate. Thank you also for your statement beforehand. I have deliberated with the Table Office on this matter, and I would like to place on record my thanks for its help and support during this period.

On 2 May 2012, the Minister of State for Universities and Science in the coalition Government, the now Lord Willetts, said in a speech:

“As taxpayers put their money towards intellectual enquiry, they cannot be barred from then accessing it. They should not be kept outside with their noses pressed to the window”.

I wholeheartedly agree with that statement. If money from the public purse is used for the acquisition, whether direct or through acceptance in lieu schemes, of research, records or archives, they should be accessible to the public. Put simply, those who bought it ought to have access to it. The public have a right to access materials and records that have been paid for with public funds. However, because of Government actions that bar the public from accessing certain archives, that seems not always to be the case.

Barring access to archives is both a break of the public’s trust and a threat to the integrity of our academia. It also sets a dangerous precedent in terms of accountability and transparency more widely if the Government are able to censor and restrict access to archives. I am deeply concerned about recent activities of the Cabinet Office that have blocked access to certain archives that were bought with public money, which is why I called for this debate. The resulting legal battles and the costs involved with barring access are a further misuse of taxpayers’ money, and this Government need to be held accountable for it. No Government should interfere with public access to archives that have been saved for the nation and paid for by the public.

Clearly, there are some circumstances in which that right may have to be restricted. National security interests or ensuring that general data protection regulation requirements are met are both reasonable justifications for restricting access, and I do not think that anyone would deny that. There is a reason why certain documents are kept sealed by the National Archives for 30 years. The public accept that, but it seems that this Government are using and abusing that public acceptance. They are pushing out-of-date legislation to its limits. There are a number of pieces of legislation that cover the reasons for restricting public access, and some are in dire need of an update, having been drafted long before the digital age was even thought of.

This Government are using the numerous loopholes in those pieces of legislation to restrict public access to records retrospectively. That is not fair use of public money; frankly, it is an abuse of public trust in the Government to provide open access to records that have been saved for the nation. In some cases, the abuse is even worse. In cases where the purchase was agreed or funding was obtained on the basis of public access, the retrospective closure of archival material is both a costly misuse of public money and a dangerous precedent for the Government to set. It breaks the understanding upon which the funding was obtained.

I am sure that many will be aware of the Broadlands Archives. They have gained a reasonable amount of press coverage over the last few months, and rightly so. Historian Andrew Lownie has fought legal battles for four years to try to gain access to the papers, diaries and personal correspondence of Lord and Lady Mountbatten. I have spoken to Mr Lownie over the past few months about his experiences of trying to access these archives, which were purchased on the understanding that they would be open to the public. Unfortunately, the Cabinet Office has attempted to obstruct him at every turn, resulting in four costly and unnecessary years of legal battles.

Indeed, the Cabinet Office tried to get out of responding to this very debate, suggesting that I go to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport instead. That is why I sought advice from the Table Office before going ahead with this debate. When the original suggestion did not work, the Cabinet Office also inquired about the potential withdrawal of this debate completely.

Cabinet Office Ministers are not facing their responsibilities and they are reluctant to say why it has taken so long and been so difficult for Mr Lownie to gain access to these records. The Cabinet Office needs to be held accountable for spending large sums of money on legal cases to prevent access to archival material that was bought with public funds, especially when the fundraising for the purchase emphasised that the archive would be open to all.

In 2011, these records were saved for the nation when the University of Southampton purchased the Broadland Archives. The purchase was partly funded by a grant of nearly £2 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund and it was subject to the acceptance in lieu scheme, which in this case equated to £1.6 million in tax foregone by the Exchequer. That funding was provided on the basis that the archives would be open and accessible to researchers and the public. Let me just say that again: taxpayers’ money was provided on the basis that the archives would be accessible to the public. If archives have been bought for the nation on the agreement that they will be accessible to researchers and the public, that agreement really ought to be upheld. It is not fair to the taxpayer or members of the public who wish to access these archives if access is then denied or obstructed after purchase. What is most worrying about this case is that it involves not the Government but an academic institution—an academic institution that should be promoting active research by historians.

I will not get into the case because the Information Commissioner is involved and there is an appeal; I am mindful about that when I speak about the case. However, I am talking mainly about the principle related to what is going on here, because the one thing that we have learned politically in the last couple of years is that there are politicians out there who peddle fake news—the idea that facts are fake. The only way that we can combat that—people saying that certain historical events did not happen—is through the work of our archivists and historians.

It seems to me that what is happening with the Mountbatten papers and Broadlands archives is hindering future historians in bringing out the full story of what went before. If we are to learn anything about the future, we must understand our past. I am worried that the Government are actively involved in restricting archives and that cannot go on. It sets a dangerous precedent for future Governments.

We may one day—I hope not—have a Government that want to burn our past and change it, and that will use this legislation, which I fear, to stop us having the truth and the real story of our lives in this country, and to fit their own political purposes. I hope that that never happens; I hope we never see what happened in Germany in the 1930s happen in this country. However, if we had the mechanism to block our archives retrospectively, as seems to be happening in this case, we would be setting a dangerous precedent not only for historians but for future society and future Governments.

I ask the Minister to look at the case carefully. I understand that there are legal procedures, but my extreme view is that the precedent being set is dangerous for the future. I hope he will look at the legislation and understand that when it was written we were not in a digital age. We had no concept of what was going to happen. In the last 10 years, the world has changed beyond all recognition. We have more information than we have ever had before. Government is now conducted over WhatsApp and text messages. We have an idea of what people are thinking. We live in an exciting time. It would be a shame if future historians could not access that, or did not know how important decisions were arrived at. I ask the Minister to look hard at the case and see the argument I am making that if we dangerously reduce access to archives, we will cause serious problems down the line.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I congratulate the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on raising the issue and securing the debate—not quite as highly or hotly debated as the previous one. Nevertheless, I know how important this subject is to him as a distinguished author. I will give a broad background to the process and then talk more specifically about the case he raises.

The acceptance in lieu scheme was set up under the National Heritage Act 1980 and was further fleshed out in the Inheritance Tax Act 1984. It allows taxpayers to transfer works of art and other heritage items into public ownership in lieu of capital transfer and inheritance tax. It is a good way to secure important national treasures for the nation. The scheme has acquired many important collections of artefacts for the nation, including Sir Winston Churchill’s papers, the papers of Lord and Lady Mountbatten mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, as well as—I am sure this will please him—the papers of Clement Attlee.

The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport may accept heritage items that are offered, but purchases under the scheme are overseen by the commissioners of the board of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, who are advised by the AIL panel with the support of the Arts Council. As we would expect, their concern is of the value of the objects offered in lieu of tax. The panel advises on the excellence and importance of the artefacts in question, their physical condition and whether the price is fair both for the applicant and the state. The Secretary of State, again advised by the panel, allocates the items to a suitable gallery, museum, library or archive, which will then care for the material and make it accessible to the public.

The scheme has grown into a major source of new acquisitions for those organisations and means that citizens and tourists alike are able to celebrate and experience our heritage in new ways. When it comes to archives accepted through the scheme, the Cabinet Office or another relevant Department advises whether the items contain sensitive information that may need to be kept closed from the public to protect our national security, defence and relations with our international partners.

The scheme’s aim is to secure archives for the nation. It is agnostic on whether it is right that material in the archives should be open to the public at once. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, the scheme is not the only route by which historic papers enter the public domain—there is the Public Records Act 1958, under which Government papers are transferred to the National Archives once they are 20 years old. Former Ministers, senior public servants or their heirs sell or gift their private papers to research institutions.

By convention, Prime Ministers may take with them copies of certain categories of documents when they leave office. The originals remain in the possession of the Cabinet Office until they are transferred to the National Archives. For example, departing Prime Ministers may take copies of letters they sign, including personal letters to the sovereign, personal telegrams and purely political papers. Obviously, they may not take copies of anything marked “top secret”. They agree not to release those papers without the approval of the Government of the day. If they sell or transfer them, they must impose that same condition on the new owners.

Ultimately, it does not matter how official information enters the public domain; Government officials review every artifact to assess the sensitivity of information. It would be remiss of any Government not to take steps to prevent the disclosure of information that could damage the national interest by revealing intelligence about national security, our relations with our international partners or exposing institutions to legal challenge. I must reassure the hon. Member for Islwyn that the Cabinet Office’s role is not to keep those records closed for ever; that is a temporary stop until the records can be released without risk. I must reinforce that point. Once the threat is deemed to be reduced, the records will be made open to the public.

The hon. Gentleman should know that there are safeguards, not least the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Under that, at the simple request of any person in any part of the world, Government Departments, university archives and the National Archives are all required to look again at records and make a decision on whether they should continue to withhold information or open it to the public. They have to be able to justify that decision, first to the Information Commissioner and ultimately to the courts.

[Mr Stewart Hosie in the Chair]

The Mountbatten papers are currently being considered by the first-tier tribunal. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that it is a long-running case; he referenced the individual who brought at least one case and he will be aware of the recent coverage of the case in the media. The Cabinet Office has already released some information to the requester and is seeking to withhold only a small part of that information. The hearing is currently taking place and the tribunal must be able to review the case on its merits without prejudice. As such, it would not be appropriate for me to enter into the specific details of the case today, before the tribunal has even considered it.

What I can say is that in 2011, the archive of Lord Louis and Lady Edwina Mountbatten was accepted under the AIL scheme. It was part of the Broadlands collection that he referred to, which is named after the house in which Lord and Lady Mountbatten lived in Hampshire. The collection includes papers of Lord Palmerston and the noted philanthropist the Earl of Shaftesbury, whose memorial is the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus.

One of the most important parts of this huge collection of papers is the Mountbatten archive. That part of the Broadlands collection consists of about quarter of a million documents and 50,000 photographs. It covers all aspects of Lord Mountbatten’s distinguished naval career: his role as Chief of Combined Operations during world war two, including material on the Dieppe raid; his role as Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia Command 1943-46; and his period as the last Viceroy of India, overseeing the transfer to independence.

Not all of those events were glorious. The Dieppe raid is generally considered a disaster, albeit one that demonstrated Britain’s continued commitment to the western front at a pivotal point in the war. Nevertheless, the papers give a fuller and more rounded assessment of Mountbatten and his contribution to our history that would simply not be possible without them. In particular, they give great insight into Mountbatten the man, his character and inner thoughts at crucial turning points in our history. Mountbatten was placed close to the centre of world events during the middle of the 20th century.

The papers also shed light on his closest relationships, including those with key figures in our national story. What makes the papers unique is the conjoined papers of his wife, Edwina, a descendant of the Earl of Shaftesbury, whose traditions of public service she continued, both as Lord Mountbatten’s partner and through her philanthropic works, most notably as a leading figure in the St John Ambulance Brigade.

In short, from an historian’s point of view, including that of the author to whom the hon. Member for Islwyn referred, these papers are priceless. That is why when the acceptance in lieu offer fell short of what the Broadlands Trust needed to secure the papers for the nation, the University of Southampton undertook fundraising on its own account to raise the extra money it needed. As the hon. Member for Islwyn mentioned, it raised an extra £2 million from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and other bodies to secure the purchase. I know the hon. Member will join me in applauding the University of Southampton for the fantastic role it played in securing the Mountbatten papers for the nation.

I know that the hon. Member believes that because the papers were purchased with public money, they should immediately be made available to the public and scholars. As I have explained, that does not necessarily follow. It is standard practice for historical papers to be checked for sensitive information. That applies equally to papers in private hands, no less than to historical papers of Government Departments transferred to the National Archives. The papers of former public servants often contain information that remains sensitive, even many years after the events that they relate to.

As it is, fewer than 200 documents in the Mountbatten papers have been redacted. In most cases, those redactions are no more than a few lines and, in many cases, just a word or two is withheld. Overall, less than a tenth of 1% of the documents in the collection have had some of their content withheld. I cannot go into detail about information that has been withheld, or why we have withheld it, but I can say we base our advice to external archives on our own experience of assessing the sensitivity of our records. We never ask archives to withhold anything we could not ourselves withhold. In this case, there is no exception.

Nor is our judgment on what should be withheld final. As I have already explained, the university archives and the majority of public institutions that hold private archives are subject to the Freedom of Information Act, in just the same way as Government Departments and the National Archives are. I can assure the hon. Member that Cabinet Office officials have consulted extensively on which materials to withhold, and on what grounds.

Again, it is not appropriate for me to go into specifics while the tribunal is still hearing evidence. The redactions in the Mountbatten papers have been made in consultation with our colleagues in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in order to safeguard national security, positive international relations and the dignity of the Crown. Officials have to answer for the decisions that they have taken to the Information Commissioner and, ultimately, the courts. Indeed, that is the course that is now being followed in the case before the tribunal, so whatever the outcome of that tribunal, I must reiterate that these records will not be closed forever. It is a temporary stop until they can be released without damaging the national interest.

To conclude, the AIL scheme is a great way to preserve the papers of important public figures for the nation. As the hon. Member for Islwyn knows, we continue to open Government historical records more often than any previous Government. As I touched on earlier, the Government must ask institutions to withhold some historical records to protect our citizens, but we remain committed to opening as much as possible as early as possible. The most important goal should be for such papers to be secured for the nation and preserved, precisely so that they will be available to historians in the future.

I thank the hon. Member again for raising this subject. I am sure that he, the historian involved, the Cabinet Office, and other colleagues will take a keen interest in how this tribunal rolls out over the coming days. Who knows—we may very well return to this Chamber soon to discuss the Mountbatten papers once again.

On a point of order, Mr Hosie. I apologise to the House that I failed to declare my interests as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on archives and history, and as an author. I should have done so at the beginning of the debate.

That is now on the record, and I am sure that everyone will be content with that.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.