Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Professor Rodney Lowe of Bristol University, who is a great expert in this field, has argued that the early release of documents would allow officials to speak more easily truth unto power and thereby contribute to better government. That may be true, but it will also certainly and inevitably lead to greater embarrassment. Even under the existing 30-year arrangement, we have had some very near misses. If we move to 25 or 20 years, it is certain that embarrassments will take place. Perhaps I may explain what I mean. At the turn of this year, British Foreign Office papers from 1977 were released in the normal way under the 30-year rule. They contained considerable salty, unflattering comment on the Irish political class. When the documents were released, they caused considerable irritation in the Dublin newspapers, and considerable aggrieved comment was made. Let us imagine what would happen if the young Foreign Office official who wrote those documents was at that time the British ambassador in Dublin. Such considerations have to be borne in mind.



5 Feb 2008 : Column 1017

These embarrassments aside, the pressure over time to move a 20- or a 25-year rule—it may not come from the committee, but it will happen over time—is likely to be irreversible and irresistible. There are good reasons for it, of which I shall give the House an example. In 2001, in the United States, the biography of Congressman Tip O’Neill was published by JA Farrell, the Washington correspondent of the Boston Globe. This is significant for our history, because it deals with the important matter of the decision of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, on the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985. Mr Farrell was able to access National Security Council archives, which showed the full Reagan/American side. Everyone accepts that that aspect was an important part of the noble Baroness’s decision. We, however, will have to wait until 2016 before we know the other side. Such imbalances and ambiguities are in the end intolerable and will increase the pressure for a change to a 20-year or 25-year rule. Whether this committee acts is another matter, but, in time, the pressure will be hard to resist.

However, one major and less controversial reform is open to the new committee. In 1958 the Public Record Office made an important and wise decision that the papers of Ministers’ private offices were public records. It is almost amazing that until that time they were not. The new review has the option, as Professor Lowe has pointed out, of establishing as public records such papers as those of special advisers—increasingly important in recent years—the Whips office, hived-off agencies, and private agencies financed by taxpayers’ money for delivering policy.

The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, has also directed our attention to the subject of our official histories. The first UK official history programme was established in 1908, exactly 100 years ago as a reaction to the perceived failings of the Boer War. Military history has played a large part in the enterprise, as the noble Lord said, although he mentioned also the important work of Richard Titmuss at the LSE. We have recently been reminded that Professor Arthur Marder had an enormous struggle to secure the release of official documents for his acclaimed multi-volume history of the Royal Navy in the First World War, published between 1960 and 1974.

Today, the atmosphere is much more relaxed. The vetting of material is much less strict, and we are entirely justified in looking forward with some enthusiasm to the works recently commissioned by the Cabinet Office. I am particularly looking forward to the history of an important part of our intelligence services being carried out by a colleague in my own university, Professor Keith Jeffery. If, as seems likely and desirable, we are to see an extension of the Cabinet Office’s official history programme, we need, as the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, has urged, simultaneously a greater concern with the practicalities of publication. The taxpayer and the reading public deserve no less.

7.52 pm

Lord McNally: My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Bew, my first duty is to thank my noble friend Lord Rodgers for initiating this debate. In the day-to-day hurly-burly of politics, how we preserve government

5 Feb 2008 : Column 1018

archives and how we prepare official histories may not be the top of the agenda. But history does matter and my noble friend does us all a service by providing an opportunity for us to debate this topic tonight. As he told us, he has direct experience of the Official History Programme, serving as he does on the committee of distinguished privy counsellors who have oversight of the programme. Healey, Howe, Rodgers—quite a formidable trio. I would like to be a fly on the wall at some of their meetings.

I have had a lifelong love of history. I had the privilege of studying English social history at University College London under Professor Joel Hurstfield. I am still a subscriber to History Today and a devotee of the History Channel and the programmes of Professors Schama and Starkey on television. I am always suspicious of politicians who show no knowledge of or interest in history. As Winston Churchill once observed:

And so it has. But we are in danger, if we are not careful, of neglecting the raw material of history. If we do, we will rely too much on diaries and instant memoirs, as has already been mentioned.

I have to declare that I have never kept a diary and that I have no intention of publishing a memoir. I am not a great fan of diaries as an historical source. It is like asking a football player to report a football match he is playing in. I know from my limited experience of writing a diary for The House Magazine that you become a kind of servant to the diary. The need to seem central and relevant to events makes the diarist an uncertain witness. On the other side of the fence, the idea that one or more colleagues may be scurrying home after a meeting to record their version of events cannot lend itself to free and frank discussion or great mutual confidence. As has been mentioned, we now also have the reductio ad absurdum of the process with the publication of Mr Alastair Campbell’s diaries, which, as we know, are the expurgated version because the details of the relationship between Mr Blair and Mr Brown are too lurid for contemporary eyes.

Of course official histories have their drawbacks, too. They always live in the shadow of being compared with Winston Smith plying his trade doctoring history in the Ministry of Truth. Even if we do not view them as part of a 1984 nightmare, we have to take on board the views of Barry Coward, president of the Historical Association, who said:

He goes on to warn:

Such a warning should be taken on board. We do not want establishment history written by establishment historians. However, the official programme has set in train a programme of scholarship. It will not be the last word, but it will be invaluable to future historians. Jonathan Pepler, chair of the National Council on Archives, said:



5 Feb 2008 : Column 1019

In reality, what we are discussing tonight is another aspect of open government. It goes hand in hand with an effective Freedom of Information Act and the ending of the culture of secrecy in Whitehall. That is why it is important that policy on freedom of information and on archives and records should be a seamless garment. I have visited the National Archives at Kew and was very impressed with what I saw. But I am only an interested amateur. So let me put on record the view of Professor Peter Hennessy of Queen Mary College, London, who believes that it is the best national archive in the world. So the question is: how do we preserve this great national treasure? And I am referring not to Professor Hennessy but to the National Archives.

First, I believe that the programme of official histories should be encouraged and maintained. And perhaps I may make a suggestion, as it has been mentioned already. I should like to see a study of the history and role of special and political advisers in Whitehall. I was once told that such implants go back at least as far as Lloyd George’s time. A proper study would expose many of the myths and shibboleths about their role in governance.

Secondly, there is a need to ensure that the work and efficiency of the National Archives at Kew are not weakened or undermined by the extra calls made by implementing the Freedom of Information Act. Can the Minister assure the House that there is no “robbing Peter to pay Paul” switch of resources and that Kew will not suffer such cuts to service freedom of information demands?

Thirdly, we all look forward to the review of the 30-year rule under the chairmanship of Paul Dacre. I must confess that when I first heard that Mr Dacre had been asked to undertake this study, I thought it was like asking Jack the Ripper to undertake a review of street lighting. Nevertheless we look forward to the review, and I note what the Prime Minister said when announcing it. He stated:

There was a good example of that last weekend when it was reported that an apparent tiff between Sir Anthony Eden and Churchill about the timing of Churchill’s retirement had been kept secret for 50 years. It seems extraordinary that that should be so. A number of the embargos on the workings of government, the security services and royalty belong to a different age.

Publication can create the danger of embarrassment, as the noble Lord, Lord Bew, said. The 30-year rule recently coughed up a memo that I sent to Jim Callaghan in 1977 advising him strongly not to see the troublesome Back-Bench Member for Hull, Mr John Prescott. By the time this all surfaced, Mr Prescott was Deputy Prime Minister. But I am absolutely sure that it did not change his view of me one jot to know that 30 years ago I had been doing that.

We are all living longer, the Freedom of Information Act is becoming a reality of open government, and we will all have to come to terms with accepting the consequences of our actions when in government.

5 Feb 2008 : Column 1020

However, as the Hutton and Butler reports have shown, sofa government—where major decisions are taken without a paper trail—and the increasing use of new communication technologies mean that the archives may not always tell the whole story. It is 30 years since the then Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, asked his predecessor, Harold Wilson, for a review of record-keeping in Whitehall. In terms of how government is carried on and records kept, that was another age. I should therefore like to see, once we have the Dacre report and its recommendations, a more broad-based review to follow up the Wilson committee of 30 years ago. Such a committee could also look at the need for and capability of preserving voice and visual records as well as e-mail traffic.

As I said, history is important. It is important for all our citizens to know who we are and the events that have made us what we are. In my teens I was stimulated by the Granada programme hosted by Brian Inglis called “All Our Yesterdays”. I still think that it is a key part of citizenship that we understand where we are and what our history is. It is key that we encourage both record-keeping and openness of government. My noble friend Lord Rodgers has stimulated a very worthwhile debate. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Bew, that I would love to come to a full hour-long lecture by him on the subject. But I will leave that matter for the moment.

8.02 pm

Lord Luke: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, for introducing this short but most useful debate. All of us ought to be interested in our forebears and history. I am therefore most disappointed in the small number of noble Lords present, particularly on my own Bench. As an amateur historian, I have always been fascinated by the parliamentary archive and in the preservation generally of documents, whether ancient or modern. The Parliamentary Archives, together with the National Archives, have custody of over 500 years of records, on parchment, paper, film, tape and photographic reproductions. House of Lords records are held largely in the Victoria Tower. It is some years since I last paid a visit but I was fascinated. I have been promised another visit and shall be doing that.

Most early House of Commons records were destroyed in the devastating fire of 1834. Archives are kept as records of Parliament for various obvious reasons: as a legal and evidential record of Parliament’s proceedings and work since the late 15th century, to help us to learn from history. But do we learn? Archives are kept to help the general public to learn about how their predecessors and ancestors lived and their achievements; to help historians, both professional and amateur, to prepare official histories, biographies and related activities and to carry out research.

Parliamentary Archives is one of several offices that constitute the Clerk of the Parliaments’ department. The House of Lords Information Committee has oversight of the work of the archive. The archive, it goes without saying, provides an updated catalogue of all the other archives, and is still in the process of digitalising them and making sure that they are available online. It helps the public to inspect and copy records and to answer

5 Feb 2008 : Column 1021

inquiries. It makes sure that the general public are aware of the existence of the archive and how they can use it for research and lifelong learning. It helps to provide that vital link between Parliament and people. It provides data for IT and encourages the use of that IT. It also helps the public and parliamentarians to use that resource. It has to ensure that records that are worthy of preservation—who decides if they are worthy?—are selected for the archive. It obtains and, if necessary, acquires other records deemed to contribute significantly to understanding the history and workings of Parliament.

Some archives have naturally deteriorated over the years and need conservation and then preservation from future damage. Clearly an efficient department carries out this work. I have read the archive’s latest annual report, the publication date of which does not appear to be given. It is an interesting document, though I personally find the style and language in which it is written difficult to follow. It is clearly not written with the general public in mind. Perhaps something derived from such a document should be produced annually so that the general public can be informed about what is happening.

During my researches I discovered that Hansard has been carefully preserved all through the years; that Acts of Parliament from the House of Lords are, by and large, in the Victoria Tower, as are many Acts originating in the House of Commons; that pamphlets and newspaper articles relevant to government and Parliament have been preserved; that the original warrant for the execution—or, as I prefer to call it, murder—of Charles I is kept, with other priceless important documents, in a specially air-conditioned room; and that there is regular and frequent communication between the House of Lords Library, the House of Commons Library and other libraries, the historical record office, the National Archives and many other depositories of historic documents.

I have learnt a lot, and I hope absorbed a great deal, during the preparation for this debate. A great deal of dedicated work is carried out by the department. Here I must thank Dr Hallam Smith for her help and say how much I enjoyed her obvious enthusiasm. Archives are essential parts of our lives, not least because they bring a sense of immediacy to long-forgotten history—lest we forget.

8.07 pm

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the whole House is grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, for introducing such an interesting debate. It deals with an area that I cannot recall being voiced in the House before. This debate is therefore long overdue because we need to address issues relating to both archives and official histories. I hope that I shall be able to indicate that constructive work is being done. However, first, I want to put on record my gratitude for the helpful and interesting suggestions that have been made this evening, as they aid the Government’s thinking in this area.

I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, for his tribute to Tessa Stirling and the work that she has done in this area over many years. The honour that

5 Feb 2008 : Column 1022

she obtained was well deserved, and there is no doubt that the country owes her a great debt of gratitude for that work.

A great deal of work is under way to ensure that the Government capture and maintain vital information that is generated. We recognise that government information is unique and an extremely valuable asset where robust information management is vital.

It may help if I outline the arrangements that we have in place at the moment and indicate the areas where we need to think constructively about the future. As the official government archive for England, Wales and the United Kingdom, National Archives houses records from across central government that are mostly over 30 years old. There is no legal obligation on departments to transfer records to National Archives if they are under 30 years old. I want to reassure the noble Lord about his search of the Ministry of Transport records some time ago. Lessons have been learnt from that period and the care with which government departments maintain their records is at a higher standard than he may have witnessed when he examined the position some time ago.

The House will be aware—the noble Lord, Lord McNally, referred to this—that the Prime Minister announced on 25 October last year that he had appointed an independent team led by Paul Dacre, the editor-in-chief of Associated Newspapers Ltd and a member of the Press Complaints Commission, to review when government records are made available to the public. The review is focusing on whether, in the light of the Freedom of Information Act and other considerations, there should be any changes to the 30-year rule—the time-span under which most public records are transferred to National Archives and made available to the public. The noble Lord, Lord Bew, identified areas where the 30-year rule needs to be looked at afresh. First, if one part of a story is released elsewhere somewhat earlier than the present 30 years, obvious questions are raised about impartial information being in the public domain.

Secondly, with careers lasting longer and people living longer, the 30-year limit raises significant issues about individuals’ sensitivity when information is released for which they are either directly responsible or identified in a particular role. Therefore, these matters need to be looked at afresh and I assure the House that that is what the review is intended to do. Although the noble Lord, Lord McNally, ended by giving an encomium to Paul Dacre, I think he recognises that, with his background in the newspaper industry, he has at least a real concern for the immediacy and relevance of information, and that makes him an excellent appointment to the role.

Within each department, a departmental record officer is responsible for the care of all the records, which in recent years has inevitably included an increasing number of electronic records. Each departmental record officer’s work on public records is carried out under the guidance and supervision of expert staff at National Archives. The National Archives team takes a strategic role and supports the department in its operational work. At a strategic level, National Archives agrees with each department which records need to be kept

5 Feb 2008 : Column 1023

for long-term preservation and access via a published document—the operational selection policy. At an operational level, it advises and helps the departmental record officers in selecting records for permanent preservation at National Archives in line with this policy, in creating search aids to the records, and in ensuring that the records are prepared and transferred to the correct archival standard. Therefore, I hope that the noble Lord will appreciate the extent to which intensive rigour is applied to the processing of departmental records and the role which National Archives plays in supervising that work.

As the noble Lord, Lord Bew, indicated, the Freedom of Information Act has made the Government more accountable than ever for the proper management of information. Section 46 of the Act requires the Lord Chancellor to issue a code of practice on the management of records. This was published in November 2002 and came into effect on 1 January 2005. It is in two parts. Part 1 covers record management and part 2 covers the review and transfer of public records. The code applies to all central government departments and public record bodies. That is an important derivative from the Freedom of Information Act which conditions, in a way vastly different from in past decades, the ways in which departments now and in the future will need to address themselves to the question of records. Last year, National Archives launched information management assessments designed to raise the capability and awareness of the Government’s management of their information and records. A department’s compliance with the code is assessed within the overall departmental information management standards. The initial assessments completed last year have resulted in strong recommendations and actions for improving and supporting how departments manage their records and information. They have also enhanced the awareness of the importance of managing information and records across these departments.

National Archives is also supporting the Government to help capture and maintain vital information for the development of guidance on the tools for proper information management. With the increasing number of electronic records, for example, National Archives is taking forward a pan-government shared services project, the digital continuity project, which aims to deliver a shared service across government to ensure the survival and accessibility of digital information. I hope that, in this section, I have been able to demonstrate to the noble Lord, with his well founded anxieties, that the arrangements are in place for capturing and maintaining government archives—and perhaps more importantly, that the initiatives being introduced will ensure that we guarantee the survival of today’s information for tomorrow.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page