Historical Manuscripts Commission — Question for Short Debate
Lord Cormack (Conservative)
My Lords, I am delighted to have this opportunity to ask this Question for Short Debate.
I would like to dedicate this debate to the memory of a very great Member of your Lordships' House and former chairman of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, Lord Bingham-Tom Bingham, as so many of us knew him for so long. He was one of the great judges of the 20th and early 21st centuries. He loved being chairman of the commission, so much so that when he ceased to be Master of the Rolls and became Lord Chief Justice he continued in the chair. In a sense I am raising in your Lordships' House the unfinished business in the late Lord Bingham's files because we were in communication on this subject to within a month or two of his death.
The background to this is that I served as a royal commissioner on historical manuscripts from 1980 until 2003, when the royal warrant, which had been issued for the first time in 1869 to establish the commission, was updated so that the Keeper of the Public Records became the sole commissioner. It is worth reading to your Lordships an extract from that warrant. It states: "Our said Commissioner"-
now the sole commissioner-
"shall make enquiry as to the existence and location of manuscripts, including records or archives of all kinds, of value for the study of history, other than records which are for the time being public records by virtue of the Public Records Acts; with the consent of the owners or custodians inspect and report on them; with the consent of the owners or custodians reproduce and publish or assist the publication of such reports; record particulars of such manuscripts and records in a national register thereof; promote and assist the proper preservation and storage of such manuscripts and records; assist those wishing to use such manuscripts or records for study or research; consider and advise upon general questions relating to the location, preservation and use of such manuscripts and records; and promote the co-ordinated action of all professional and other bodies concerned with the, preservation and use of such manuscripts and records".
It is important to have the royal warrant on the record in your Lordships' House because when the merger of the Historic Manuscripts Commission and the Public Records Office was first proposed, there was real concern among commissioners. I was particularly vocal on the commission in expressing that concern. Lord Bingham was very understanding-so much so that he went to infinite pains to seek assurances from Ministers and others that the staff and resources devoted to the HMC would be preserved within the new National Archives, that the royal warrant from which I have just quoted would be embodied in the vision and objectives of the National Archives, and that the new body would be put on a statutory footing in legislation that would encapsulate those undertakings.
Lord Bingham retired from the chair in 2003. I served on the National Archives successor body for two years, and we kept in touch because I remained concerned. In 2009, when Dr Anthony Smith retired from the commission-he is now the chairman of the British Records Association-he contacted me to express his alarm at what he saw as a downgrading of the role and resources of the commission and its identity. As a result, I contacted Lord Bingham, who was, to put it mildly, very perturbed. We had a meeting in this very building with the then Minister-I am delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Wills, in his place-about six weeks before the general election of 2010. Tom Bingham was by then a very sick man, but he came and was very vigorous, as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Wills, would readily attest, in expressing his concern at being personally let down on the undertakings and assurances that he had received. He pointed out that staffing levels had fallen, three permanent posts had gone and people had not been replaced. He was also concerned that the identity of the HMC had been lost; it was very difficult to find it, or any reference to the warrant from which I have quoted, on the website. The noble Lord, Lord Wills, was so concerned about this that he gave certain instructions but, of course, the election intervened and I was away from Westminster for a long time-six months.
When I took my seat in this House, one of the early things that I did was renew my friendship with the noble Lord, Lord Wills, and together we saw the noble Lord, Lord McNally. As a result of the meeting that I helped to arrange with the Lord Bingham and the noble Lord, Lord Wills, and the meeting that the noble Lord and I had with the noble Lord, Lord McNally, there have been some welcome developments. There is an increase in the visibility of the identity of the royal commission. An advisory forum, under the chairmanship of the Master of the Rolls has been established. We welcome that very much indeed, but it is, frankly, no substitute for the vigorous, independent and experienced body that was the royal commission.
The consequence of all this is that a very small percentage of the staff at the National Archives deals with more than 50% of the nation's historic archives. Perhaps I may quote from a letter that I received only today from Dr Susan Davies, one of my fellow commissioners in the dying days of the royal commission, in which she says,
"the opportunity to consolidate HMC's functions following amalgamation with the PRO to create that National Archives in 2003 has been missed, and"
there has been,
"a marked decline in the staff allocated to HMC functions, its profile and public information about its work",
"has been unfortunate to say the least, because it has resulted in a declining ability to carry out those functions".
She is referring, in other words, to the functions that are clearly listed in the royal warrant.
What I am asking the Minister, my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire, who is to respond to this debate, is this: can we please have a proper independent monitoring body that is independently selected, to which the chief executive is, to a degree, answerable, and from which he is obliged to take some advice? This is no criticism of the chief executive but we need to recognise that more than 50% of the nation's archives are, to a degree, at risk. Can we also have an assurance that, as the budget permits, the number of staff who deal with the HMC functions is increased? Can we have a commitment that those magisterial publications that adorn the shelves of historians and university libraries around the world, and which have now ceased, will, when the time is appropriate, appear again and we will have more scholarship?
What we are talking about here is a nation that has the richest written heritage in the world, and the largest element of it is in archives that are not public records but collegiate, corporate, ecclesiastical, industrial and, above all, private. All over the country, there are those who have archives of immeasurable worth and received a service and an advice service from the royal commission that had no equal anywhere else in the world. All this has, to a degree, been put at risk. I criticise no individual, but circumstances have developed that make all of us who are concerned for the nation's archives deeply concerned, and I hope that we will have a reassuring response from the Minister.
Lord Wills (Labour)
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, on securing this debate and on an excellent speech. In my few brief remarks I want to support everything he said, not least about the crucial importance of these archives for our national heritage. I also pay tribute to the noble Lord for his many years of service to the cause of archive in this country.
I am also sorry that this debate has been necessary because, as the noble Lord indicated, it suggests that there remains unfinished business from the creation of the National Archives in 2003, nearly 10 years ago. It was clearly understood then that there would continue to be a distinctive and important role for the commission and the invaluable work that it did with private archives after the creation of the National Archives.
However, when I, as the Minister who had by then become responsible for the National Archives, was approached by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and the late Lord Bingham in 2009, it became clear to me that undertakings in this respect given by previous Ministers had not been honoured as they should have been. The initial focus after the creation of the National Archives had understandably been on government records, the significant task of meeting the challenges of digitisation, and on ensuring that records remained available for future generations in the face of rapid and profound technological change. This was a significant challenge for the National Archives, and I understand that.
However, once I looked into it, I could see no reason why this and all the other excellent work being done by the National Archives should be incompatible with honouring the understandings reached between the commissioners and the Government at that time. Therefore, I held a number of meetings, including, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, mentioned, the one with him and the late Lord Bingham. I reached agreement with the National Archives on a way forward which, I hope it is fair to say, satisfied the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and the late Lord Bingham as the de facto custodians of those original undertakings. However, at that point I had already announced that I was not going to stand again for the House of Commons-the general election was imminent-so it is perhaps not surprising that my agreement with the National Archives was not pursued with the same vigour as it might have been had it been reached a few years earlier.
As the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, he and I then met the noble Lord, Lord McNally, last year and, once again, I thought that we had reached agreement on a way forward. Indeed, some welcome changes have taken place, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, described. As I understand it, for example, the new forum is now meeting regularly with a membership that reaches out across the spectrum, and I think that everyone is content with that.
However, issues remain to be resolved. Everybody accepts that the National Archives, like all public bodies, today operates under severe financial constraints, but so far as I am aware-this is something that I have asked for, as, I know, has the noble Lord, Lord Cormack-there has still been no commitment, as had previously been agreed, that, when finances allow, the resources allocated to private archival work should be at least at the level they were when the work was carried out by the Historical Manuscripts Commission. Such a commitment, however caveated, would represent an unambiguous recognition of the importance that the National Archives attaches to this work, and I hope that we will see it in the not-too-distant future.
I am afraid that the website still leaves something to be desired. Because this is the gateway to the National Archives for more and more people, including professional historians as well as members of the general public, I saw this as an important vehicle for honouring the commitments made in 2003 and, above all, for preserving the identity of the commission in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, described. That was particularly important to the late Lord Bingham. However, it was only after the meetings last year that my original ministerial request to have a reference to the HMC on the home page was fulfilled. Even now, it is only a quick link and then that link follows on to a page which conveys little of the significance and importance of private archival work. I really think that, in the light of everything that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has said today, the National Archives could do a bit better than that.
The merger between the HMC and the PRO has clearly not worked as well as it should have done. Given the continuing difficulties in meeting the expectations created by the understanding with the commissioners in 2003, despite my ministerial intervention and meetings with Ministers last year, it is now time to keep track systematically of the honouring of those commitments. To that end, I suggest that the Minister agrees to meet the National Archives annually to review progress on this issue and the state of private archival work more generally, and I should be grateful if, in his reply, the Minister would agree to do so.
Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank (Liberal Democrat)
I welcome my noble friend's debate and I shall learn more today than I can offer. I was not aware that the Historical Manuscripts Commission had been an integral part of the National Archives since 2003 and that the commission grew out of the long-standing Keeper of Public Records; nor had I learnt about the role of Lord Bingham of Cornhill.
The National Archives is an important and impressive institution rich in history, and since my first visit to Richmond I have kept a sharp eye on the Treasury's temptations. It is quite right that my noble friend is raising this aspect of the National Archives and the danger of downgrading the commission, especially during these lean financial years.
In my intervention today, my comments will relate only to the edge of the specific interest of my noble friend Lord Cormack and a long way from manorial rolls. I want to refer to a short debate that I introduced in the House on
In that debate I raised two separate but related questions: how government papers, including ministerial papers, are kept after leaving their departmental offices and when they are not sent to Kew; and the record of major events described in Crown copyright official histories. The responsibility of these matters lay, and still lies, with the Cabinet Office.
In due course, two reports on the future of official histories were produced for "restrictive" internal purposes but were later released following a Parliamentary Question from the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy. Although the publication of the current series of books will be completed, I am alarmed that the Government have declined to commit themselves to a new series.
Earlier this year, my noble friend Lord McNally, said, speaking on behalf of the Government, that he hoped to,
"review future work in happier economic circumstances",
"It would be a tragedy if we were to allow them"-
the official histories-
"to wither on the vine".-[Hansard, 17/1/12; col. 547.]
That is how it rests. I am not pursuing the matter further today but I shall remain alert to developments.
I turn to the treatment of government papers. My interest and concern arose when I was seeking papers that were important when I was Secretary of State for Transport from 1976 to 1979. Early in 2005, I asked the department to find them for me but after six months I finally abandoned hope of finding anything worth while. Frankly, the papers in the repository in Hastings were in a mess.
Finally, I wrote to the Secretary of the Cabinet, Gus O'Donnell-now the noble Lord, Lord O'Donnell-about the availability and condition of the records of all departments. In reply, he said that departmental record-keeping was now of a higher standard than it used to be, and a previous Cabinet Secretary had given guidance to Permanent Secretaries to resolve the problems of storing and archiving private office papers. This guidance had been revised a couple of years ago and the Cabinet Office would monitor how the departments acted upon it.
I should like to believe that all departments now have a model records system comparable to that at Kew. I am not asking the Minister to comment-I had not warned my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire of my interest-but I hope that he will pass on the message to the Cabinet Office with an up-to-date report on departmental records and papers.
Baroness Young of Hornsey (Crossbench)
My Lords, I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has brought the issue of our archival heritage to the House's attention through this debate.
I first became involved in the archive world after being seconded from my lecturing job to assist Black Cultural Archives in developing its collection. During that time, I worked with colleagues in the Historical Manuscripts Commission and was struck by their helpfulness and generosity of spirit in contributing time and energy to that project and to others in which I was subsequently involved. To my surprise and delight, I had the honour of receiving an invitation from the chair-the highly esteemed Lord Bingham-to join the RCHM as a commissioner, which I accepted. That was the occasion on which the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and I first became colleagues, albeit briefly. Perhaps uniquely, I recently also served as a non-executive director of the National Archives for several years.
The archives sector continues to undergo rapid change, cultural and technological. Shortly after I joined as a commissioner, the HMC, as we have heard, merged with the Public Record Office to form the National Archives. This decision was taken in order to enable the Historical Manuscripts Commission to keep up with the significant changes taking place in technology and issues affecting public and private archives, and to open up wider access both to researchers at all levels and to funding opportunities. This new body, the National Archives, was tasked with maintaining the quality of advice for the public sector and the owners of private archives, and to ensure that the work of the HMC continued. It also aims to offer the more efficient delivery of all services and better value for money, and to serve as the lead body to take forward government policy on archives.
Last year, the National Archives also took on the role of sole strategic leader of the archive sector, with the transfer of key archival responsibilities from the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, a role that now encompasses the full range of the nation's archival provision, public and private. I recall from our board meetings at TNA on several occasions having discussions to ensure that the Historical Manuscripts Commission functions remain a critical element of TNA's work, enabling the integrated organisation to continue to support and advise archives outside the public sector and to have an impact across the whole archival spectrum.
Since 2003, the scope of the work has diversified further, taking in a wider variety of record-holding bodies, such as business, religious and charity archives. I very much welcome that expansion, as it allows the wonder of archives to be shared by more communities and fully supports and augments some of the work in which HMC is engaged. Like most other public bodies, TNA has had to continue its operation in the context of substantial cuts. Despite that, I am aware that it continues its work in the private archive sector. In the context of having to make savings of 25%, TNA continues to build on the solid foundation laid by HMC.
For example, the National Register of Archives is an invaluable tool that provides a unique map of the nation's archival collection, and it was initiated by HMC. The register provides a central point of information about archives beyond the records held by the National Archives, which, as noble Lords will be aware, focuses on collecting government documents and information. The register records the location of more than 300,000 collections, with thousands more added annually. Alongside the NRA, there is the manorial documents register. That is constantly being reviewed and computerised, with half the counties so far completed. There are other initiatives to which I could point, such as the religious archives survey, which not only produced an important reference document but enabled archive staff at TNA to develop new relationships with a wide range of religious bodies connected to many faiths. There is also the business archives strategy, which was launched in Parliament and well attended by major business figures.
In conclusion, of course there is insufficient time to go into further detail and to respond to some of the comments already made by noble Lords. I am sure that the Minister will have gathered by now that I am a firm supporter of the entirety of TNA's work and that I, and many others, recognise and support the work that HMC started, which is being continued. I hope that he can assure the House that TNA will be funded at a level that enables it to continue to build on the substantial heritage of the HMC.
Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville (Conservative)
My Lords, my speech will be both brief and personal. First, I apologise to my noble friend Lord Cormack and your Lordships' House for being absent when his speech began, against all the rules of the rubric. I had been giving lunch for one of my sons, whose birthday occurs during the Recess, which starts today. Only one screen is on the Barry Room, and I had my back to it, so I had no idea that our hour-long debates this afternoon were getting on so ahead of schedule.
I arrived in your Lordships' House in time to hear my noble friend allude to the late Lord Bingham of Cornhill. The late Lord Bingham and I were contemporaries at Oxford at the same college and we were very close friends, taking coffee together after evening chapel every night for a year, with our third companion, Maurice Keen, later a distinguished medieval historian. Six or seven years later, after we went down, Lord Bingham and I were mutual godparents to our respective eldest children.
Fast forward 35 years, to when I was Secretary of State for National Heritage, I asked the authority of the Permanent Secretary, given the circumstances, to appoint the then Master of the Rolls, also known as Lord Bingham of Cornhill, to be chairman of the Royal Historical Monuments Commission. I gather that the National Archives website uses its titles HMC and RHMC interchangeably. The Permanent Secretary acceded.
Fast forward another decade and, as a 70th birthday present, I gave Tom Bingham, then a senior Law Lord, the bound volume of a Select Committee of Parliament in 1800 on our historic manuscripts. In thanking me, he said that he could not imagine any other nation which had preserved all its key constitutional documents in good shape since the 16th century. It is in the memory of the spirit of Lord Bingham that I congratulate my noble friend Lord Cormack on having secured this debate and opened it so cogently. I hope that the alliances formed this afternoon will flourish along the same lines as described in this debate.
Lord Clement-Jones (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, as an amateur but enthusiastic family historian and genealogist and someone whose family has deposited archives with a number of libraries and record offices, I welcome this debate. Private archives are important, and historians such as Peter Ackroyd, in his History of England, are still mining their riches.
On the face of it, the Public Bodies Act Schedule 5 provision was widely welcomed in the way that the existing structures were given statutory authority. Of course, there were only 12 responses to the consultation. I think we have all learned something today from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. We also welcome the creation in May 2010 of the forum on historical manuscripts, which deals with private archives and academic research. The question today has been posed whether that goes far enough.
What are the key issues for private archives? Accessibility is crucial, digitisation in particular. Deals with commercial sites that digitise records are important-findmypast, Ancestry and the Genealogist can make all the difference, but those deals are often available only to public archives. A strong call to develop a framework to promote and manage the digitisation of the UK's cultural heritage has come from the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology in its follow-up report on science and heritage published this month. It states:
"A national digitisation framework is needed to address issues of sustainability, the prevention of duplication and loss of digital records, and to stimulate a potentially lucrative income stream".
That is part of a set of recommendations to encourage the DCMS and BIS to be much more proactive in their leadership of the heritage science community. That view was echoed by David Willetts MP in his evidence to the committee.
Accessibility also means that indexes and cataloguing are crucial. It means that the National Register of Archives, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, maintained by TNA, needs to be meticulously maintained. What is the basis for inclusion in the index? Catalogue material from major depositories will be found on the index but not, I fear, uncatalogued records, but that material can be of great interest and importance to historians, although there are few resources for cataloguing in many cases. Also, is material from regimental museums-which is so important-included?
Preservation is also crucial. I am told that the National Archives has a robust science and heritage research programme in place that is addressing critical preservation questions facing the archive sector, including private archives. The National Archives is taking a lead in translating environmental research for the benefit of cultural heritage collections. A good example of that is the recently published revised environmental standard for cultural heritage collections, which is based on up-to-date research evidence. The implementation of that environmental standard will, in part, be picked up by the Collections Trust, an independent advisory body working across the sectors of libraries, archives and museums to improve standards of preservation through SPECTRUM, a collections management standard to provide ongoing advice and guidance.
I welcome the Collections Trust's forward plan for 2011-14, but surely leadership should not be left to the voluntary and private sector. I hope that, in particular, the Minister will address the question of lack of leadership by DCMS and the Ministry of Justice in those areas. Should not the vacancy of the Chief Scientific Adviser post since 2010 have been filled? I look forward to the Minister's reply.
The Earl of Sandwich (Crossbench)
My Lords, I am impressed that in the list of the political interests of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, he has arts and heritage ahead of defence and NATO. Of course, he chaired and helped to found the original Arts and Heritage All-Party Group more than 20 years ago, but I did not know that he had served for so long on the RCHM and the HMC. He has indefatigably defended our national heritage, notably in another place in his debate in 2006 in which he pleaded for more support for museums.
I am not sure of my own qualifications for this debate. I was an historian at Trinity Cambridge under some parental duress. My mother's influence led me to a modern language degree, but I had studied a fair amount of English history. In the 1960s, I gradually became the self-trained curator of our family archive which, in spite of the depletions of a fire in 1830, includes papers dating back to the civil war. Therefore, as a private source of manuscripts and a trustee of our excellent history centre in Dorchester, I thank the NRA, the RCHM, the HMC and now the National Archives for the work that they have done to make historic family papers more accessible over the decades since the last war.
I am not saying that the job is done; in fact every time I look online I wonder whether too many links and references bewilder students. The NR website is refreshingly honest about not always getting it right but access has been greatly improved. When I think of the number of unsorted papers and photographs surviving centuries of neglect in attics in country houses, I know that we have come a long way towards meeting the needs of scholars, writers and researchers.
I well remember the arrival of Sir Edward Warner back in the 1970s, when he came to list the voluminous papers of the 4th Earl of Sandwich. Without him I would never have appreciated the rows between admirals and politicians in the 1770s which thwarted so many naval victories, and Dr Nicholas Rodger would never have been able to complete his superb biography 20 years ago. The study of manuscripts always produces surprises. Noble Lords may know of Edward Gibbon's original record of the 4th Earl's famous invention in 1762 in a chocolate house in St James's. But I have also discovered a reference to early chocolate recipes in the 1st Earl's journal when he was ambassador in Madrid. We are awaiting further results, for apparently he may even have invented the chocolate ice bar.
In political terms, perhaps the most exciting recent discovery was in the same journal during the research carried out by Dr Charles Littleton and others for the history of the House of Lords. It turns out that the 1st Earl, who was made a Peer by Cromwell as well as by Charles II, occasionally kept minutes of council meetings and, in one or two cases, these have proved to be the only record of such meetings.
Next year sees the publication of the very first biographical and institutional volumes of this history, and it will prove to be a most exciting occasion for Parliament. In due course, digitisation and online publication will lead to the first electronic history of the Lords. But new technology does not always work. Only last week an historian asked whether she could consult me on intimate details of the 4th Earl's private life because the name of a courtesan had not appeared on a microfilm. I was relieved to be able to report that there was no such reference in the original either.
During a recession, private owners suffer like everyone else and, from time to time, we have to subsidise the considerable cost of maintaining historic properties and collections through painful personal sales. In these difficult times, we continue to look to the Government not to make our lives more difficult than they are already, and to look kindly on exemption rules and in-lieu arrangements, as I know they have. So I look forward to the Minister's confirmation to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, that historical manuscripts in public hands will continue to be cherished and will not be the target of cuts while he is around.
Lord Bew (Crossbench)
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for securing this debate. I thank him also, as a professional historian, for the role that he has played over the years in protecting our archives. It is always a great reassurance to those of us who are scholars in this area to know that there are Members of Parliament who care about the preservation of the nation's heritage in this respect. When he was speaking at the beginning of the debate, I felt a real spasm of regret when he talked about those beautiful volumes produced by the Historical Manuscripts Commission that will no longer be produced, a spasm of regret which was enhanced by the fact that the Irish Manuscripts Commission-on whose board my wife, the historian Professor Greta Jones, serves-continues to produce beautiful and relevant volumes of the sort that we no longer do. I am greatly in sympathy with the spirit with which he has spoken.
I am secretary of the All-Party Group on Archives-the All-Party Group on Archives and History since 2008-and we have had to work with the status quo created by the merger since 2003. Some of the things that I am now about to say may appear to be a little glib in the sense that the APG in this context simply cannot undo that which was done in 2003. However, we have been very keen to ensure that the world of private archives is protected. Without the merger, the National Archives' role would be confined to public records only. When the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, put down this issue for debate, I was assured, on inquiry, that the team numbers of those working in the private archive section have held steady, despite the significant general cuts to TNA funding. I hope that that is certainly true. Again, it is a benefit of sorts of the new arrangements since 2003 that those working in private archives can access research, expertise and information from TNA, which was previously available only to those working in the public records area.
It can also be argued that the merger of 2003 has enhanced the possibility of a number of other developments: the strategy for business archives, launched when the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, was chairman and I was secretary in 2009 by Mervyn King in the Palace of Westminster, which has been a very effective strategy; the religious archives survey published in 2010, also undertaken by the National Archives; and the ongoing project of the Architecture, Building and Construction Survey. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, will agree that those are good things and that there are elements of good work still going on. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, receives the reassurances that he has asked for.
I add a brief note to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, when he referred to official histories. I strongly support his general views on that. At a time when the Government are endlessly badgered to deal with the history of the past in Northern Ireland, one of the least expensive ways, and one most likely to bring about truth and reconciliation, would be an official history of the Northern Ireland Office. Many of the things that the Government are badgered about at the moment are extremely expensive but that would not be and it would be valuable and long term in its significance.
Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Labour)
My Lords, I add my thanks to those expressed for the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for introducing this debate. I join him in suggesting that the memory of the late Lord Bingham should be invoked in our discussions. I met Lord Bingham once on another matter, but at the end of that conversation we spoke a little about archives and it was noticeable how he suddenly became incredibly animated-not that the earlier discussion was not interesting, but it seemed to me that archives were his passion and interest at that time.
I declare an interest as a trustee of a recently formed trust that holds an archive of personal and political papers that will be a mixture of both private papers and papers of relevance to the nation.
The key issue appears to be whether the merger of the Historical Manuscripts Commission into the National Archives will allow the specificity that is necessary for those classes of manuscripts to be retained. It is important that we recognise, as many noble Lords have said, that there has now been some change in the previous arrangements in that there is now more visibility. We shall see whether that is sufficient, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, put it; whether the commission can now have the sort of resources or the focus that it used to have-albeit accepting the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and the noble Lord, Lord Bew, that within TNA the whole resource is greater than it would have been had it been independent; and whether there will be more expertise and possibly more modern approaches to the work that it is doing.
I have two very small points. We want to hear from the Minister whether the undertakings that were obtained by my noble friend Lord Wills towards the end of his time as Minister, when he was trying to resolve the issue, are being taken forward. Some clarity on that would be useful. The noble Lord suggested that the target for the level of activity in the merged institution should be at least as high as it was prior to the merger. That would be a test that we could usefully use to judge whether it has been successful.
I will make two small points. The noble Lords, Lord Rodgers, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Bew, mentioned the ability of ministerial papers to influence official histories, and the need for the Government to commit to maintaining a programme of publishing them. I would certainly welcome this, because the papers are important.
Manuscripts and archives, as we discussed, suggest vellum and an earlier age in which artefacts were stored-as we can see close by in the rolls that look so impressive. However, we should consider the electronic age. The archive with which I am involved has the majority of its records in electronic format. It has proved very difficult to obtain a consistent picture of issues that one wants to look at in the archive because at least 50% of the material is still on paper and the balance is electronic.
There has been no merging of diary records with paper and other records, and it is therefore very hard, because of these mixed modes, to get a picture of events and activities that happened. When one adds to that the fact that government is increasingly involved in leading debate and activity by putting forward things on the web-whether in social media or formally through websites-one can see the difficulty that we face. It is important for the Government to have a view on this, and it would be helpful if the Minister could respond to a few of the points.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire (Whip, House of Lords; Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for securing this debate and for the way in which he has kept at this question since the merger of the Historical Manuscripts Commission and the National Archives nearly 10 years ago. It is quite right for noble Lords to remember with great sadness Lord Bingham, whose commitment and dedication as the chair of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts ensured that the nation's archives and manuscripts were in safe hands.
It is now nearly 10 years since the merger. In the light of what has happened since, I think it is fair to say that we are in the safe hands of a larger organisation. The Historical Manuscripts Commission was funded on a very modest scale, but I recognise that it was said in the Chamber today that we all need to make sure that resources are still there, that private records are given at least as much attention as public records and-perhaps I may add this, although it was not in most of the speeches-that the shift in public and in particular private records from paper to digital form is a challenge that the Government and all their partners now have to face and meet.
My engagement in this area comes as a lapsed historian. I share the feelings of the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, who the other day described the sheer joy of rummaging in an archive, feeling the paper and seeing different handwriting and typefaces. That is part of what we will lose with digitisation. The question of who will look at the noble Lord's e-mails in 20 years' time to see what he was really saying when he talked to Ministers is one that future historians will find rather more difficult.
There are a number of private archives still to be rescued; we all recognise that. I thoroughly enjoyed reading through the religious archives survey that the National Archives has just done, and looking at how we capture the archives of churches that are now much less prominent than they were, and how we get at the records of the Jewish community and now the Muslim community to make sure that they will be available to future researchers. I note that here and elsewhere we are talking about a partnership between government and other keepers of archives. Southampton University has developed a very good relationship with the Jewish community, for example, in the keeping of Jewish archives. Manchester University has a similar specialisation in Nonconformist archives.
My own involvement has been with the London School of Economics, which has developed a very useful archive of political records. Some years ago I gave my father-in-law's records of the Liberal Party in the 1940s and 1950s to the LSE, which sorted them out far better than I would have done. I added my own records of the party in the 1960s and 1970s-also not always an easy period-and I am extremely happy that the LSE is cataloguing them rather than me. I was also pleased, with my wife, to take my father-in-law's Bletchley Park records, which he should not have had in the first place, and give them to the Imperial War Museum. In the past few weeks I have enjoyed talking with other Members of the House about a number of Bletchley Park records, in particular because a 96 year- old who worked with a number of people I know sent us several entirely improper photographs taken of people working at Bletchley Park during the war. They are now on record and digitised, and we will hand them on.
I am grateful for the opportunity afforded by the debate to discuss this question. Perhaps I may reassure noble Lords that matters are under way. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, referred to the advisory forum. It was established-before he talked to the noble Lord, Lord McNally-in May 2010, no doubt as a result of some of the things that the noble Lord, Lord Wills, had been engaged in.
We recognise that the problem of the budget squeeze is real in terms of staffing. There are now 4.5 full-time equivalent staff working in the private archives area, but a number of other people in the National Archives offer advice in different ways to people working in the private archives sector, in particular on the tremendous challenge of the shift from paper to digital that we are all beginning to face. Therefore it is not entirely true to say that staffing has shrunk. I cannot at this point give a definitive pledge that staffing levels will in future be raised, but I will take it back and discuss it with the various departments concerned and with the National Archives, and we will see what we can do.
On the question of a proper independent body, in December this year there will be the first of what it is intended should be an annual consultation with the owners of private archives. It will be held at Syon Park under the patronage of the Duke of Northumberland, and we very much hope that it will lead to a series of continuing dialogues with private archive holders, of the sort to which noble Lords referred.
The commitment on monographs is another difficult one. Perhaps I may move here to official histories. I heard what the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, said. As a historian, I am not entirely sure that I want official histories to continue in their old way. Those that I have read with most interest, and sometimes discussed with the people who wrote them, were particularly in those areas where the archives had been kept closed for 50, 60 or more years, and where someone distinguished and trustworthy was authorised to look through them and publish as much as they were allowed to for the rest of us to read.
The Government are trying very hard to reduce the secrecy of public archives and the length of time they are kept secret. I like to think-it is certainly my advice to my colleagues, and my opinion rather than government policy-that where possible archives should be available to people who are not subject to state control and Cabinet Office guidelines to write the sort of histories that we have had on nuclear weapons, for example, or the Cold War, much more rapidly than before because the archives will have been declassified. That is more desirable than relying on the state-but I take the point about an official history of the Northern Ireland Office. Again, I will take that back.
To reassure the noble Lords, Lord Cormack and Lord Wills, I think that we are responding, and moving in the directions in which we have been asked to move. The advisory forum is there. Dialogue with owners of private archives is very much there. Those who look at the website will see-as I have on the last two occasions on which I accessed it-that the Historical Manuscripts Commission appears very quickly when one moves into that dimension of the register. There is also some interesting stuff not just on the religious archives survey but on business archives and private archives.
We now have the National Register of Archives. Despite everything else, more than £250,000 has been invested in this comprehensive spending review period to update and improve online access to these systems so that the processes of contributing information to the register and finding the information it contains are brought up to date and simplified.
The National Archives has also undertaken the revision and provision of online access to the Manorial Documents Register, in which 22 counties have been surveyed since 2003. This is a lengthy task since the register has not been systematically revised since the 1920s. More than £300,000 has so far been invested in this project. Those are not insignificant sums at a time when the National Archives' funding has been cut by 25%.
I emphasise that private archives and public interest are a matter of partnership with county museums, local repositories and, increasingly now, with universities. The vision and scope of the work with repositories beyond the public records system has grown and developed. The work undertaken today reflects a broad constituency of civil society, serving both traditional record-holding establishments such as record offices, landed estates and universities and an increasingly diverse range of private and charitable institutions.
Advice and support offered to such institutions and individuals reflects the National Archives' awareness of diversity in the provision and maintenance of private archives. In fundraising opportunities, commercial licensing, the digitisation of software and community engagement, a breadth of advice is available. However, a two-way learning process from the wider expertise is also available as part of a bigger, national organisation.
Looking to the future, the National Archives is soon to launch its refreshed action plan to support the Government's overall policy on public and private archives. The plan's central priorities are the sustainable preservation of archival records and their accessibility to all who need and use them. The archives accreditation scheme currently under development will provide further support to specialist record repositories across the public and private sectors.
We recognise that it is vital that records of both the public and private domain are cared for and accessible and that their significance continues to be recognised. I can assure noble Lords-and I have spoken to a great many people over the past week-that the National Archives is striving actively and successfully to sustain a future for our archival heritage wherever it is held and that it is recognised as such.
Lord Wills (Labour)
I assume that the Minister is about to conclude. Before he does, will he address my request for an annual review on progress in meeting the commitments already given? In doing so, will he recognise that for all the splendid work of the National Archives, and he has given a very good defence of it, there is nevertheless remaining unease about the commitments given in 2003 by people who are no longer in position? Although it does not mean that the Government should not honour those commitments, those commitments have not yet been fulfilled. Will he agree to an annual review meeting on that basis?
Lord Wallace of Saltaire (Whip, House of Lords; Liberal Democrat)
I recognise the question. My understanding is that the Syon Park meeting in December is intended to fulfil a great many of those commitments. If the noble Lord is not satisfied with that, I undertake to write to him on that score. I spoke to him before this debate, and I have also taken fully into account the concerns expressed by a number of people both outside this Chamber as well as inside it. Looking at the current situation I am relatively assured that most of the points made have been met, except for the question of funding. We would all like a great many more staff to assist.
Lord Cormack (Conservative)
I support very strongly what the noble Lord, Lord Wills, said. I suggest that the Minister and the noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Wills, and I at least have a get-together soon to discuss these matters.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire (Whip, House of Lords; Liberal Democrat)
I am happy to accept that proposal. I look forward to that meeting, which will be after the Diamond Jubilee Recess.
We all recognise the importance of private archives as well as public archives. Several of us here hope, when we finish being quite so committed in the Lords, to spend more time digging around in private archives. That is one of the great joys of retired life as well as everything else. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for introducing the debate and wish everyone a very happy Diamond Jubilee.