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Official Histories

Volume 767: debated on Thursday 10 December 2015

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their latest assessment of the process for preparing official histories.

My Lords, it is a little over two years ago, on 10 July 2013, that I last raised the future of the Government’s Official History Programme, and well over 100 new Peers have arrived at the House since then. In the circumstances, I think it is justified to pursue a matter I first raised in the House on 8 February 2008, and twice, briefly, in 2012. I am grateful to colleagues who have supported me before and I welcome those who, now or later, may share my thoughts.

The Cabinet Office leaflet of the Official History Programme reminds us of the background. The work on official histories began under the auspices of the Committee of Imperial Defence as long ago as 1908, with responsibility for,

“compiling the naval and military history of the nation”.

After 1945, responsibility was extended to cover wartime civil issues such as food and health. The first official history I read was Problems of Social Policy by R M —Richard—Titmuss, published in 1950. It is a seminal text on poverty and deprivation in wartime, by which the author made his distinguished name.

As the post-war period of official histories came to an end, the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, following discussions with the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Burke Trend, announced that the range of official histories would now include selected periods and episodes in our peacetime history. So official histories continued and in 1997 the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, decided to renew the project.

I should explain my particular involvement. At that time, in 1997, I was appointed by the Prime Minister, together with Lord Healey and Lord Howe, as one of the three privy counsellors to approve the authors of official histories. Beyond those very limited responsibilities, I became interested in the planning and overall management of official histories. I was puzzled by what appeared to be two different series of books: the Official Histories Programme, with which I was involved, and a similar series published by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I enjoyed the official histories as they were eclectic, but there was no obvious logic in their character, sequence and timing, with some authors taking many years to complete their writing, or even dying on duty. I was very uneasy about the publication arrangements, including the marketing.

The then head of the Histories, Openness and Records Unit at the Cabinet Office, Tessa Stirling, was very helpful, as she had been to authors, but following further correspondence and discussion, I decided to seek a debate. That occurred in February 2008. The ministerial reply was bland, but as a consequence of the debate, within a year, a report on the official histories was commissioned which turned out to be positive and important. The report was written by Sir Joe Pilling, a retired civil servant who took evidence widely and quickly, concluding that,

“the overwhelming weight of evidence supported the continuation of the programme”.

To summarise, he said:

“I recommend that the official history programme should continue”.

He also made some suggestions on how to make the programme,

“better, stronger and more useful”.

Despite that, in August 2010, in a letter to the three privy counsellors, the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, said that since the current Official History Programme was coming to an end. He said:

“Given the current challenging economic climate, I am sure that there is likely to be a hiatus in commissioning titles”.

That is how it was; there was no further explanation and nothing further about how to implement the Pilling report.

That brings me to the debate on 10 July 2013. In the course of my remarks, I asked several questions. Who decided to make a hiatus? Was it a ministerial decision and, if so, by whom and when? If we are in a hiatus or, alternatively, considering a new Official History Programme, precisely what are the financial consequences? As for the “current challenging economic climate”, how was it measured and does it seem the same as in 2010? At what point would it be judged appropriate to end the hiatus? After all, the Government are telling us that we are in happier economic circumstances. The Minister’s reply was unsatisfactory. There was no answer to my question on who made the hiatus, and so I ask again today: who decided? My following question is therefore: who can restore the Official History Programme?

As for the finances, without incurring disproportionate expenses, it is not possible to determine the overall cost of the current series of official histories. Further, the last year for which published costs were available was 2006-07. In the absence of these figures, how could a responsible decision have been made?

Almost four years ago, my noble friend Lord McNally, speaking on behalf of the Government on official histories, said:

“It would be a tragedy if we were to allow them to wither on the vine”.—[Official Report, 17/2/12; col. 547.]

I hope that the Minister today will endorse that sentiment. As an initial step towards reviving the official histories, the Government could agree the Pilling report, arrange for the Cabinet Office to discuss this with other departments, work out the financial implications and review the present publishing contract arrangements. My Lords, why not?

My Lords:

“We need a sustaining stream of Official Histories”.

So wrote our esteemed colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield, who sadly cannot be with us today, in one of his recent books, which never fail to stimulate and entertain, as well as inform. Even a historian operating on a much more modest scale, as I do, knows what riches are to be found within the covers of the official histories. No other nation has ever produced an official history explicitly dedicated to wartime intelligence that approaches in magnitude Britain’s five volumes, amounting to more than 3,000 pages, published between 1978 and 1990. There is so much to relish and, naturally, historians in this House, in academic life and elsewhere feel strongly that the programme must endure and look forward to its relaunch.

We all tend to have particular projects that we would like to see proceed, so that the distinctive, complex, and often secretive processes of government in our country can be understood better. In all of this, a study of what the great HAL Fisher called,

“the play of the contingent and the unforeseen”,

so often turns out to be particularly momentous.

In an earlier debate on this subject, my noble friend Lord Bew referred to the case for an official history of the Northern Ireland Office. I strongly agree: the department is so frequently a neglected element in the various versions that appear of events that led eventually to the peace process. In the recently published second volume of his biography of Margaret Thatcher, based on a very wide range of official papers, Charles Moore has laid bare much of the activity of the Cabinet Office, some of it extraordinary in character, in the period leading up to the Anglo-Irish Agreement 30 years ago. But what about the government department that has been central to the implementation of British policy in Northern Ireland since 1972? How valuable an official history would be in elucidating it.

The construction of a programme of new work still lies very much in the future. What we have to do today is, first, to thank the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, for the tenacity with which he has pursued the matters that have to be settled so that the official history programme can proceed, as so many of us want. Historians owe him an immense debt of gratitude. We must also recall with gratitude the work of the two other members of his group of privy counsellors, to whom he referred, who contributed so much to the programme: Lord Healey and Lord Howe of Aberavon, whose recent deaths caused us such deep sadness.

The second thing that we have to do today is to underline the importance of implementing the recommendations of the excellent report on the official history programme produced in 2009 by Sir Joseph Pilling, an old friend of mine who, as it happens, would occupy a prominent place in any official history of the Northern Ireland Office, having been its Permanent Secretary during the peace process. Sir Humphrey obfuscates; Sir Joseph is unequivocal. As the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, reminded us, Sir Joseph stated:

“The overwhelming weight of evidence supported the continuation of the programme”.

He went on to lay out with clarity and precision the manner in which it should be done. Again, as the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, reminded us, that was some six years ago.

Those Ministers who have had the—not especially enviable—task of explaining the Government’s position in response to the Pilling report, including the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who it is so good to see here, have resorted constantly to pleas of poverty in this so-called age of austerity. I suggest that the time has come to invoke a firm Tory principle and to bring it into play now. The principle is that, as the state divests itself of certain responsibilities, as this Tory Government are doing—particularly in the sphere of local government —so it should ensure that the state’s duty is fully executed in those areas that fall permanently to its care. The Official History Programme is one such obligation.

I would not dream of showing any disrespect to my long-standing noble friend Lord Gardiner of Kimble, but I rather wish that the noble Lord, Lord Bridges of Headley, could have joined us for this debate. The Official History Programme has never had a stronger champion than his grandfather, Edward Bridges, who was a wartime Cabinet Secretary and one of the greatest public servants—one of the very few rewarded with a Garter. In late 1941, a low point in our wartime fortunes, Bridges commissioned a series of official histories on both the civil and the military aspects of the conflict. He said:

“We must think in the long term of the continuity of the state”.

That above all is why this publicly-funded programme should continue, and continues to be needed.

Not that Edward, subsequently Lord Bridges, expected his own profession necessarily to be exalted or praised by the histories. “I confidently expect”, he said of civil servants,

“that we … shall continue to be grouped with mothers-in-law and Wigan Pier as one of the recognized objects of ridicule”.

A Government who include this great and witty man’s grandson ought surely to do their duty.

My Lords, when I saw that my noble friend had put down a debate on official histories, I must admit that I thought, “Oh, I quite like reading history, so I will find out what an official history is”. It has been a voyage of discovery and, having listened to the debate so far and read previous debates, I realise that I am treading very gingerly on ground that I do not really recognise. But it has become clear that I have actually seen and used official histories on occasion. I did not know what they were—they were just history books that had been provided by the state to look at the state.

If that is being done properly, it is a great expression of confidence in the state by the institution of the state. I rather suspect that there are a great many people—say, a Minister—who will be keener on the idea of an official history going into office than on leaving it. So we have that idea bubbling around. But if we are doing this—looking at our comparatively recent past—the programme is probably a good thing. If we take it to be a good thing, what should we do about it? Quite clearly, the first thing that we should do, as the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, and my noble friend Lord Rodgers said, is continue to produce them.

I am further indebted to my noble friend for providing me with a copy of the Pilling report. One of the most important things it says is that great big books may be wonderful things for people who have the time and the inclination to read them. But I am a person who likes history but is rather addicted to the article: the small, easy to read copy. I pride myself on having a very good veneer knowledge of history: it is wide-ranging and has a nice shiny surface in places but in other places is worn through and is non-existent. Accessible articles are the best way forward. If you are going to do this work, which is valuable and not very expensive, surely making sure you divest and get it out there would be an extremely good idea. It is about using it in a more creative way.

There is an appetite for consuming history—and it is a broad spectrum of history we are covering here—and for using that knowledge. We have many institutions that will help us do it. Surely we should be tapping into that. We have an example in the Pilling report of a good way of using new media intelligently to reach a mass audience. Surely that is what is required here.

But you have to continue to do the work. Having less monumental lists of work and being more up to date and selective in producing things in a more realistic timeframe would also help the process. You could build into that an expectation of receiving knowledge and pushing it out again, but you should still carry on doing it.

It has already been suggested that we are supposed to be in much better economic times. Surely the Government’s general duty to inform and indeed encourage people to use our heritage come together here and feed off each other. One thing that we are absolutely sure about is the fact that nothing happens in isolation. If we want to keep alive the heritage industry, and indeed learning, we must use this approach to support it in various ways, and to support the work that has already been done. That is something that I would like an answer on, if not today then as soon as possible. How are we using this great store of knowledge to support education, general interest and other projects? That is something that we should be doing.

I do not think there is much more I can say that will help this debate. I hope that we will, first, carry on and, secondly, try to use any future work more creatively and go back and redistribute knowledge in a more creative way. We all have a very big, intimidating textbook at home that grins at us from the shelf. There is good stuff in it, but are we brave enough to open it and read a number of chapters? In certain cases, I certainly am not.

My Lords, I rise to support the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, who has taken the lead on this issue for a long time. He brought the matter before the House in July 2013 and February 2008. I supported him strongly on both occasions and I wish to support him strongly again today and to argue for a revival of the Official History Programme.

I want to follow up the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, about the relevance of the case of the history of the Northern Ireland Office. The recent deal that has been made in Northern Ireland to get the political institutions to function again, known as Fresh Start, does not make any provision to deal with legacy or historic issues. That is not the worst part of that deal, but the issue will not go away in Northern Ireland. Only this week the BBC “Spotlight” programme castigated the British Government for their allegedly inflexible approach on these matters, even though it based much of the programme on material that was released in the normal way at Kew. This was presented as a dramatic and subversive fact, when it was just the normal release of documents.

The local press also reports that there is still talk about some new deal on the past. Every idea that I have seen since the talks shared by Dr Richard Haass has been expensive—far more expensive than anything that might be considered by the Official History Programme. Every idea I have seen involves another lawyerfest and contains the possibility of exacerbating rather than improving inter-community relations.

In these circumstances, it is a very modest thing to say that there is surely a role for something that would be exceptionally cheap—an official history of the Northern Ireland Office. It has been brought home to me in particular by the death this year of two Permanent Under-Secretaries of the Northern Ireland Office who both played a major role—Sir Kenneth Stowe and Sir Brian Cubbon. We ought to respect the significance of these careers.

Let us remind ourselves of what is at stake. Underpinned by bipartisan consensus in Parliament for 30 years, we asked our officials and politicians, in and out of uniform, to deal with a horrible sectarian conflict. One fact is not in doubt: well over 90% to 95% of deaths in that conflict were caused by the people of Northern Ireland themselves, but we asked the Northern Ireland Office to somehow manage this.

I have no doubt that it made mistakes. We have published extensively on the mistakes, such as Bloody Sunday, and Sir Desmond de Silva’s report on the tragic murder of Patrick Finucane. The state has spent many millions of pounds on many volumes revealing its own faults. Entirely in the spirit of the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, I am certain that if we have an official history of the Northern Ireland Office, it will reveal mistakes. It will reveal civil servants, politicians and soldiers making mistakes in the handling of extremely difficult questions. That is really not the point. The point is that we ought to be saying that this is the effort by a liberal democracy to deal with a horrible problem. We ought to respect it and bring the full nature of this particular story to the public in a cool and calm way.

It is particularly important now and the argument is even stronger than in the past, not only because it is necessary as a balance, given some of the other ideas out there for dealing with the past in the Northern Ireland, but because we are in a second wave of terrorism. It is no longer the IRA, but we know that our society faces problems. We are again asking officials—people in and out of uniform—and politicians to make very difficult choices. Nobody believes that we can now march happily onwards into the sunlit uplands of an ever more free liberal democracy with ever more enhanced human rights. We want to do that but at the same time we all realise that there are also difficult choices to be made to secure the security of the citizen. This House has debated this for many hours and will have to debate it again for many hours in the years to come.

We are now in a second such conflict, and bringing out an official history of the Northern Ireland Office would reveal the errors and the many difficulties and mistakes: the tone of the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, was absolutely brilliant. We would be sending out a signal that we have confidence that our politicians and our officials, both in and out of uniform, when faced with these ghastly problems, struggle to do their best. They do not always succeed, but they struggle to do their best, and at any rate, we are quite prepared to lay it out and to allow the public to judge. On the eve of, sadly, another period of British life when terrorism is again becoming a more significant issue, that is the signal we ought to be sending out. That is why there is such a strong case for the renewal of the Official History Programme. It expresses a self-confidence in the intentions of our officials, but is not an act of hero worship or piety—it is not that at all.

My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bew, a very distinguished historian in his own right. My degree is in economics and social history, and I have always made a lifetime commitment never to describe myself either as an economist or a historian. The noble Lords, Lord Bew and Lord Lexden, made a very strong case for official histories, particularly in the case of the Northern Ireland Office.

The noble Lord, Lord Lexden, talked about the riches in official histories and of a programme that must endure, and made the point that pleas of poverty in times of austerity should by now be wearing thin. I deliberately left the withering on the vine statement— I do not think it was in the official draft—because I wanted a further look at the issue. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Addington, that it could be looked at in a more contemporary way, feeding perhaps into education and using new technologies to deliver it.

One of probably the two most famous quotes about history is of course, “History is bunk”, by Henry Ford. Before the historians rush to tell me that Henry Ford never said that, I will quote what he did say:

“History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s dam is the history we made today”.

Then of course the other great historical quote is Churchill’s:

“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it”.

That is what today’s debate is about: whether the Government are made up of brash young men and women who do not really care about history. If so, I am really worried, because I have to say that, in what now is a depressingly long 50 years around Whitehall and Westminster, the most dangerous politicians I have met are those who have no sense of history. I will not name them, but your Lordships could all make a list.

It is time for the Government to come clean. Do they no longer think that official histories have a value? Or do they believe that they can really leave it to those who write their own history? Are we going to leave the history of our times in the hands of Boris Johnson? Or do they see, as I do, a real value in this programme? It is too easy to take history for granted but, as was said by the noble Lord, Lord Bew, the exercise can itself be cleansing and can play a constructive role in healing old wounds. It is also important to retain a sense of national identity.

This has been a very particular year of commemorations, and I have been very pleased to serve on both the Magna Carta 800 Committee and the Speaker and the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Magna Carta and the de Montfort Parliaments. Again, there is a sense of taking history and bringing it into contemporary understanding. What a joy it has been to see schoolchildren in particular going through Westminster Hall and seeing those wonderful banners, reminding this generation of the shoulders they stand on in terms of our parliamentary democracy. I personally think that Westminster Hall will look duller for those banners being removed, and I wish that they could stay.

I will use the brief time remaining to say a kind word about another jewel in our crown, which is the National Archives. I see that it has now been moved into what I hope will be the safe hands of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. There again, holding on to our history is very important, and not only at a national level. We need to encourage businesses, religious organisations and charities to preserve their records, and we need to support local government archives. At the National Archives there is an archive development team that is available to help organisations keep their archives safe. Official histories are part of that commitment.

To quote the Library briefing on this debate,

“the official historian is, among things, the custodian of the national memory”.

Without these histories, we would lose something extremely valuable. So although I freely accept that in the past I may have contributed to the series of bland reports about which the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, complained, I urge the Minister to ensure that there is no hiatus and no withering on the vine. I ask the Minister to tell us clearly what the Government want to do with official histories.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure for historians to see three former assistant general secretaries and two general secretaries of the Fabian Society sitting alongside each other. I thank my predecessor in that role, the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, who himself of course is a notable chronicler—Fourth Among Equals. Perhaps he also wrote to make sure that he was the one writing the history. His debate today is important to historians such as me, although I am a very junior one, unlike my PhD supervisor, the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, or indeed the eminent noble Lords, Lord Bew and Lord Lexden, from whom we have heard today. It is also of course important to political animals such as any of us here, because if we do not know and understand the past and its lessons and precedents, we are then condemned to make some poor mistakes.

As the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, reminded us, the official histories have a long history. They go back to 1908, and in 1966 they were extended beyond the military. They have produced some works of major significance by impartial and distinguished historians, even if questions have been raised about whether the Government themselves use such valuable works sufficiently, and whether they are disseminated or marketed widely enough, including in the easy-to-read versions alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Addington. There is indeed a sad lack of information about them—a visit to the Cabinet Office website being as opaque as I fear outsiders always regard government secrecy. In fact, the only thing there are the now rather old reports on this subject.

The Pilling review quoted the purpose of the Official History Programme as providing,

“authoritative histories … a reliable secondary source for historians until all the records are available in the National Archives; and a ‘fund of experience’ for future government use”.

That phrase is key. Whether it is about capturing data by early access to papers, oral history or witness seminars, or about their analysis and publication, open government and the accountability of our leaders demands as early, vigorous and independent description and analysis as confidentiality permits.

This programme can help, whether through funding or by access, but also by encouraging and assisting research council-funded work. Government should also consider how to engage historians, particularly on areas of relevance to today’s problems, or to securing institutional memory—or, as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said, “national memory”. Governments, both Ministers and civil servants, can also engage directly with historians, including via the History and Policy organisation, the King’s College Strand Group, the Queen Mary Mile End Group, or the Institute for Government. All these bring together academics and practitioners, exploring individual decisions, events or themes, helping to craft the preservation and use of institutional memory, including its value to staff development and to policy-making, and focusing on the lessons of history.

That does happen in some parts of Whitehall. FCO historians have blossomed; they were well used by the noble Lord, Lord Hague, when he was there thinking about current issues and general themes. Perhaps today we could also pay tribute to the work of the recently and sadly deceased Chris Martin in encouraging the history of No. 10, developing its website, and bringing in historians to advise. Relishing and fostering a sense of history in those who inhabit No. 10 benefits them and generations to come.

The programme was set up to provide a,

“‘fund of experience’ for future government use”,

which is a vital phrase. There is perhaps a question as to whether government could better use the outcome, both through far wider publication of the research in the media and at events and through a more committed use of the outcome within Westminster, Whitehall, and local and European government. It may be that the Official History Programme may not continue in exactly the same form as in the past, but we must not lose its original spirit and aims, and we should focus on better ways in which history can be recorded, analysed and used in ways that are useful to today’s Government, Opposition and for future academics, practitioners—and, even more, the public on whose behalf we all strive to serve. This is the work of their Government whom they elected and pay for. They need to know what happened in their name.

Histories help the accountability of elected Governments. So the question for the Minister is how the Government will encourage and use history for better governance, policy skills development, the capability of the Civil Service and for the contribution of history to evidence-gathering, analysis and policy. We need to have our history and we need it renewed, perhaps through an engagement programme. I support the pleas of the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, and I endorse one particular Tory principle as enunciated by the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, which is that of the state fully executing its duties in those areas that fall clearly within its care. The official history is one such duty.

My Lords, this has been a fascinating debate, and as is customary in your Lordships’ House, it has proved to be highly educational for me. I thank in particular the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, for his continued and loyal pursuit of this subject. Indeed, we acknowledge his valued contribution to the Government’s Official History Programme in his capacity as one of the three distinguished privy counsellors who advised the Cabinet Office on the choice of subjects and the appointment of historians over many years. I think that my noble friend Lord Lexden expressed much more fully than I am able to the gratitude of the Government to the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, as well as paying tribute to the late Lord Howe of Aberavon and the late Lord Healey, who are obviously much missed not only in that regard but for the great contribution they made to our national life.

The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, has asked for the latest assessment of the process of preparing official histories. Perhaps I may set out where we are with the histories which are currently in the pipeline before looking to the future. There are six official histories currently being prepared on behalf of the Government’s Official History Programme. They are expected to be ready for publication in the next two years. The subjects of these six works are Cabinet Secretaries, which will be published to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Cabinet Office next year; the history of the Civil Service since the publication of the report of the Fulton Committee in 1968; the UK’s nuclear deterrent, which will be in two volumes; the Joint Intelligence Committee; the UK accession to the European Economic Community; and the criminal justice system.

These histories are, as I say, all nearing completion. Naturally, the costs of the histories and the time they take to produce vary considerably, depending on the subject and the individual historian. In some cases, recently retired historians are paid a personal fee, but in other cases the Cabinet Office would pay the historian’s university to buy his or her time. The sales of published histories varies, but generally only a few hundred copies per history is the usual number. The royalties from the sales of official histories barely contribute to offsetting the cost of each work—perhaps a few thousand pounds per book. Nevertheless, I should put on record the appreciation of the Government for the official histories which have been produced over the years. They have, particularly in the times before the information age, made a contribution to our understanding of some of the key events in our recent history.

But as these six volumes are now nearing completion, the Government will soon look again at the future of the Official History Programme, and the debate today will give them a range of issues to consider. I know that this will disappoint the noble Lord, Lord McNally, but looking to the future, the Cabinet Office, like all other government departments, is currently deciding how to implement the outcome of the recent spending review. For the Cabinet Office, this means a reduction of 26% in its budget. It will be necessary to take a hard look strategically at the functions of the department to ensure that the work that is done contributes to its key objectives. The future of the Official History Programme will form a part of the Cabinet Office’s considerations.

But this is not just or even primarily about costs. As the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, said, the Official History Programme was introduced in 1908, but in a different form and in very different days. Initially it was all about military histories—and, as has been said, in the 1960s the programme was amended to include peacetime histories. Since that time, self-evidently, much has changed. We have moved from a society where access to information was limited to a small number to a much more open form of government—and I think that that is a concept that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, would rightly champion. Even since 2009, when the Pilling and Hamilton reports were written, the world has moved on, as more and more government information is available online.

I think that the noble Lord, Lord Addington, raised this issue for consideration as, increasingly, people’s preferences have changed. People seem to have less time to read the whole of a large volume of history, and instead are much more likely to refer to shorter works and compare different information that they can find online themselves. We now have freedom of information legislation, and are in the process of transitioning to a 20-year rule for records being opened at the National Archives. Government is also more transparent, with a great deal of information being published on routine transactions and important decisions.

Alongside increased public and media scrutiny of the decisions taken by government, there is now a great deal more information on the key issues of the day in the public domain, and we are opening up many more records to the public, such as the Cabinet Secretaries Miscellaneous Papers. That is something that the noble Lords, Lord Addington and Lord McNally, raised. In this age of information accessibility, records can be accessed readily by historians and researchers online—for example, from the National Archives.

I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for raising the profile of the National Archives. I had the privilege of going there when I was part of the DCMS team; it is an extraordinary resource and a real jewel in our crown. Anyone who goes there will understand that there is an enormous commitment from the people working there to ensure that the National Archives is held in good condition and are readily accessible. One thing that very much struck me on that visit was the number of people sitting there and accessing it, deriving great interest from the National Archives.

I very much appreciate what the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, said about Chris Martin, and I endorse it very much indeed. No. 10 now has a good deal of historical information available on GOV.UK, for example, including a monthly article by a guest historian, biographical information on all Prime Ministers and exclusive video interviews with six Cabinet Secretaries.

In these circumstances, there is, of course, an argument that the time may have come to reconsider whether it remains justifiable to give privileged access to government records to just a few chosen historians, and spend not insignificant public resources on doing so. It might be more in keeping with today’s climate of greater openness to be as good as we can be at getting information into the public domain so that independent historians can write histories, without the Government having editorial control, on the basis of information that is in the public domain and available to all.

It is undoubtedly the case that, in their heyday, official histories performed a particularly valuable role in giving the public a broad-ranging and reliably sourced historical perspective on key events in our history. As we have seen, today we have a much more open environment as far as access to government records is concerned. But I am particularly mindful of what the noble Lord, Lord Bew, and my noble friend Lord Lexden said about the Northern Ireland Office and I do, of course, promise to ensure that the Minister concerned is aware of the points made by the two noble Lords. I shall naturally ensure that my noble friend Lord Lexden’s guidance to my noble friend Lord Bridges of Headley about the words of his esteemed grandfather resonates in my noble friend’s ears.

This has been an exceptional debate. Again, your Lordships have heard from historians who care about the history of our country and have contributed to its history. I hope that in the reflection of this debate, the points made will be given all the consideration that they deserve. A decision as to whether the Official History Programme should continue in some form or not remains to be taken, and I will ensure that the views of your Lordships, which have been made so robustly today, are reflected to colleagues in the Cabinet Office.

Sitting suspended.