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The Public Record Office

Volume 415: debated on Monday 8 December 1980

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2.50 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what progress has been made in deciding on the future of the Public Record Office.

My Lords, I have authorised a study to be undertaken into the possibility of bringing together all the records in the custody of the Public Record Office on a single site at Ruskin Avenue, Kew. In the meantime, the earlier proposal to close the reading rooms in Chancery Lane is in abeyance. Before reaching a final decision, I will wish to be fully informed not only of the feasibility and cost of such a plan, but also on its implication for those who make use of records in the office and for the staff employed there. Arrangements will therefore be made for all the various interests likely to be affected to be properly consulted. I hope to receive the report within about six months.

My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend for that reply and I am extremely grateful to him for the great personal interest that he has taken in this matter, notwithstanding the public pressure that he has undergone. The questions that I should like to ask him are these: if the feasibility study is to investigate the practicability of expanding at Kew, have the Government an alternative use in mind for the Chancery Lane building? Will the longterm future of the nation's archives be paramount in this study? Finally, will the transfer to the Public Record Office of the 100 year-old registers which are in the care of the Registrar-General, be included in this study?

My Lords, there are three questions. First, on the 100 year-old records, a full appraisal has now been made of the proposal and will be considered in the context of the concentration scheme as a whole. The General Register Office will be kept in close touch with the progress of the study and of course, as I have to do in this context, I shall be discussing the report with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Services. As to alternative uses, I have a number of ideas in mind, but perhaps it is a little premature to discuss them. I am very short of space generally for purposes not connected with the Public Record Office, and I am keeping the judiciary informed of the report of the study. I have forgotten what the third question was.

My Lords, the third question was whether the feasibility study would look at the long-term future of the nation's archives. I am thinking of the nation's heritage on paper and not of the short-term economic situation.

My Lords, of course I am very worried about the long-term use of the national records. I do not know whether it is generally known that, since the Lord Chancellor was given responsibility in 1958, 40 miles of shelf space have been utilised, notwithstanding a somewhat ruthless policy of shredding. There will come a time before long when this nation is entirely composed of those who are making public records and those who are researching into them.

My Lords, is it not the case that, in this period of difficulty during the transitional months, the staffs of the Public Record Office both at Chancery Lane and at Kew have worked admirably and that, on the whole, those seeking the assistance of the office have been given good service?

Yes, my Lords. I think that they are a marvellous staff. They are very highly dedicated, they have my full confidence and I have always had the happiest relations with them.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that I can aid and abet the noble and learned Lord opposite, in that I can confirm that the public have received excellent assistance both at Chancery Lane and at Kew? But may I ask one further question? Could the "tigers" possibly be kept off cutting staff at the Public Record Office while this feasibility study is in view?

Obviously, my Lords, I am under very heavy pressure, like all other Government departments. But the idea of closing the reading room, which is one of the devices to which I was put, is now in abeyance pending the result of the study.

My Lords, has the report of the historians' committee, which is supervising "weeding", been received and, if so, is there a guarantee that the weeding will be unbiased?

My Lords, I am sure that anything that it does will be unbiased—I think "unbiased" was the adjective used. The Wilson Committee, if that is what the noble Lord is referring to, has not yet reported. It is one of the matters which I shall have to take into account.

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend think that, in the long term, it might be possible to have a reading room in the new British Library building? That would be very helpful to scholars.

My Lords, the trouble is that some of our records are at Kew in the new building there, and some are in Chancery Lane. The ones in Chancery Lane include the legal records up to date, and general records in the medieval and what is called the early modern period, which ends at the beginning of the 18th century. I will take careful note of my noble friend's question, but one does not want to move the older things about very much. One is worried about their security in transit. It would be awful if Magna Charta was caught in a motor smash or anything like that.

My Lords, arising out of what the noble Viscount has said, would the noble and learned Lord give consideration to incorporating the Public Record Office, or at least the earlier documents, in the new British Library complex, as this would be much more convenient than Kew, which is being found very difficult of access by outside researchers when they come up to London?

My Lords, I am sure that the study, when made, will take account of that. But I know that there are advantages in keeping the public records in one place, and I do not think one ought to overlook the desirability of concentration. But I shall certainly ask the Keeper of the Public Records to consider the noble Lord's suggestion. Also, of course, I am advised by an advisory committee, of which my noble friend on my right who asked the original Question is a distinguished member, and the Master of the Rolls, among his other activities, is its chairman.

Finally, my Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware that I entirely reiterate what he has said on the question of the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi? There is a very good reason for keeping the nation's archives within the realms of the Public Record Office, though there is an excellent manuscript reading room at the British Library.

My Lords, I am much obliged for all the helpful questions that I have been asked. I shall take careful note of them all and shall pass them on to the study group.

My Lords, just for the record, I was referring to the new building, in a great new complex, which is at present in process of being planned.

My Lords, I know that it has been in process of being planned for rather a long time.