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Orders of the Day — Third Schedule. — (Scheme for establishment of district probate registries.)

– in the House of Commons on 4th May 1925.

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Photo of Mr Ernest Evans Mr Ernest Evans , University of Wales

I beg to move, in page 24, to leave out lines 14 and 15, and to insert instead thereof

5Chester Bangor St. AsaphShew bury.

I am moving this on behalf of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Carnarvonshire (Major Owen). It is not necessary for me to take up much time in regard to this Amendment, because the matter is one to which I ventured to call the attention of the Attorney-General to on the Second Reading of the Bill. It is solely concerned with what one may call a local matter, perhaps a national matter in that it affects Wales. The subject divides itself into two parts. The first is concerned with the work of the registries at Bangor and St. Asaph. Under this Bill it was proposed to close these, to move the work to Chester and make Bangor a sub-registry. I do not want to repeat what I said before, but I should be glad if the right hon. and learned Gentleman could see his way in any manner to meet the wishes which has been expressed in North Wales. The other part of the matter has regard to the records. We have had representations from the Senate of the University of Wales, and I am informed that the history students, by the new arrangement, are likely to be placed at great inconvenience if they wish to consult the records. I would ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman if he or the Department could give the proper consideration to the request made by the University authorities at Bangor, that the records, whatever may happen to the registry office, shall be retained and placed where they will be made available for the history students in their work of research into that part of the country in which they are situated.

Lieut.-Colonel WATTS-MORGAN:

I beg to second the Amendment.

Photo of Sir Douglas Hogg Sir Douglas Hogg , St Marylebone

My hon. and gallant Friend has moved his Amendment certainly in very conciliatory and persuasive terms, and I am sorry that I cannot accede to his request in regard to the first point which he raised, namely, that we should reorganise and alter the position of the registries as set out in the Schedule. The House will remember that I explained on the Second Reading that the matter has been very carefully and fully examined by the Committee, and that we were carrying out the recommendations of the Committee. I should like to assure my hon. and gallant Friend also, as I have already assured the Committee upstairs, that care will be taken that Welsh-speaking clerks will be available always at Chester and at Bangor—that what is necessary in regard to that matter will be done. I would like also to reassure him as to the question of records. The hon. Member tells us the records are a matter of interest, as I am sure they are, to the University and to its students. As he himself has observed, the Bill contains no express provisions with regard to records, but I can give him an assurance, after having discussed the matter with the Lord Chancellor, that there is no intention to remove from proper custody any records which are of local interest or value, and that if proper and suitable arrangements can be made, as I have no doubt they can be made, with the University authorities for the preservation of the ancient records, we shall be only too pleased to leave them in their safe custody, so that the University students may have full and free access to them. I think that will show that I am not unsympathetic or unappreciative of the way in which the Amendment has been moved, and I hope that assurance may perhaps satisfy the hon. Member.

Photo of Mr Ernest Evans Mr Ernest Evans , University of Wales

In view of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's very sympathetic consideration of the matter, t beg leave to withdraw my Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Mr William Greene Mr William Greene , Worcester

I beg to move, in page 24, after line 23, to insert in the second column the word "Worcester."

My chief point in moving this Amendment is not the convenience of the public, because were that so it is a point which would apply practically to every Probate Registry Office that is about to be done away with, and I would be quite prepared for the argument that if a registry were moved from A to B, the inconvenience caused to the people surrounding A would be more than made up by the advantages to the people living in the district of B; but the question here is not the transfer of a probate registry but the abolition of one. There are two reasons why I ask for special consideration for the city of Worcester, one financial and the other sentimental. With regard to the financial consideration, Worcester is in a special position. Worcester can more than pay her own way with a probate registry office. Last year the office fees amounted to £1,274, and the salaries and bonuses to only £1,117, showing a surplus of something over £150. In future, further savings can be made; the Inland Revenue authorities have taken over two-thirds of the office building, which means a saving of an odd £100, and other economies can be made to the extent of £250. That brings the total saving up to £350, and if one adds to that the surplus of fees over salaries it means that the Worcester Probate Registry would have a margin of profits over expenses of something like £500. I submit, therefore, no practical economy would be effected in closing this registry.

With regard to the question of sentiment, I would like to point out to the House that we have in the Probate Registry records dating back to the fourteenth century. Not only have we legal documents of earlier and later dates, hut we have most interesting and valuable records in connection with the cathedral, which was built in Saxon and Norman times, and which contains the tomb of one Norman king, several Saxon saints, and many Crusaders. We have guildhall records there referring to the Civil Wars, in which Worcester was particularly concerned—in the siege of Worcester and the battle of Worcester. These records are kept in a specially-built strong room. The British Records Society has thought so much of them that it has spent hundreds of pounds in arranging the collection, indexing it, and printing and publishing the indexes, which have been broadcast all over the British Empire and the United States. These records form a rich field of investigation for historians and men of letters, and I submit that it would be almost an act of vandalism to divorce the one from the other. Therefore, I would appeal to the Attorney-General not to take action which would damage the prestige of the city, and put the local population to extra trouble and expense, for the sake of a saving which in all probability will prove to be imaginary. If the Attorney-General cannot meet our wishes in this way, I would ask him to give a similar undertaking with regard to the future safeguarding of the records in the city of Worcester.

Photo of Mr John Wardlaw-Milne Mr John Wardlaw-Milne , Kidderminster

I beg to second the Amendment.

I think those who have listened to my hon. and learned Friend will realise that there is not, on the surface, and financial reason for this step, and everything to be said against it sentimentally. I hope my right hon. and learned Friend will be able to accept it.

Photo of Sir Douglas Hogg Sir Douglas Hogg , St Marylebone

I am sorry not to be able to accede to the request put forward. I am afraid the figure quoted by my hon. Friend, how- ever plausible they sounded when they were so ingeniously put forward by him, will hardly justify the request which he put to me. I have had only a short time in which to obtain information as to the last year, but I am told that in 1924 the total grants from Worcester numbered 580, of which 384 were through solicitors by correspondence; and of the balance, some of them, although we have not got details of the precise number, came through Customs and revenue officials, who have as one of their duties the obtaining of grants in small cases. For the Customs and revenue officials and others there was a total of 196 applications. There were employed at Worcester, besides the registrar, four clerks, so that there were five persons in all employed during 300 working days in making something less than two grants per day, or, in the matter of personal applications, something over half a grant a day. As it takes half-an-hour on the average to make a grant, the House can imagine that there is a considerable waste of time in employing five people for this very small amount of labour. Although it is quite true that if you take the salary on the one hand, and the fees on the other, there is a small excess of fees over salaries, that loses sight of two important facts.

The first is that salaries are not the only expense of the registry, as one has also to allow for rent, maintenance, cleaning and all the other office expenses. The second fact is that one of the main reasons why this section of the Bill was introduced, and why the Tomlin Committee made the Report they did, was because it was ascertained, as a result of their inquiries, that the clerks in these registries —I am not referring exclusively to Worcester, but to Worcester and other places —were very much underpaid. Perhaps it was a natural result of there being very little to do that the clerks were paid much smaller salaries than the Treasury would feel was justifiable, and one of the things we intend to do on reorganisation of the work is to see to it, first of all, that proper salaries are paid, and that those who are employed are put on a pension basis, on which at present they are not.

If you were to translate the Worcester figures by adding to the salaries actually paid the amounts that ought to have been paid, and the amounts that should properly be added in order to provide a reasonable pension, you would get a substantial deficit, even by comparing the salaries alone with the fees. Far from failing to appreciate the great importance of Worcester, is it not the fact that it returned both the Prime Minister and our Chief Whip; and a county which has that achievement to its credit deserves of course every consideration? But even if those facts are taken into account, I cannot feel that I should be justified in departing from the very careful recommendations of the Committee.

I would like to assure my hon. Friend that the facts he has brought forward as to the records and the interest which is attached to them will certainly be carefully and sympathetically considered. I am not quite sure that he indicated precisely who it is he suggests should be entrusted with the keeping of the records, and therefore I cannot give him a very definite pledge, but I can assure him quite certainly that if any responsible body locally can be found to be entrusted with the preservation of ancient records, most certainly there is no desire to deprive Worcester of the enjoyment of those records, or to prevent their remaining in the place where they are appreciated. I hope that assurance will satisfy my hon. Friend.

Photo of Mr William Greene Mr William Greene , Worcester

In view of the statement which has been made by the Attorney-General, I ask leave to withdraw my Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

Photo of Mr Cyril Atkinson Mr Cyril Atkinson , Altrincham

I should like to ask the Attorney-General if he can repeat to the House the assurance given on the Committee stage last year with reference to the position of registrars and clerks employed in the registries which are going to be abolished, which was as follows: I do not know whether lion. Members think that the effect of abolishing registries will abolish registrars and their clerks, because that is not so, and nobody will he thrown out of work. If any registrar finds his office abolished and he is not transferred he will be compensated and the clerks will he absorbed in some other way. It has been stated that the clerks will he taken into the Central Office, but as far as the registrars are concerned there is no power to dismiss them, and if they cannot be employed they have a right to be compensated. If it is desired to take away the position of these registrars we shall require statutory power to dismiss them. No such declaration has been made on behalf of the Government, and that is why I ask the Attorney-General to repeat those assurances.

Photo of Sir Douglas Hogg Sir Douglas Hogg , St Marylebone

I can assure the House that one of the principal reasons for this Clause finding a place in this Bill was that there was brought to light by the Tomlin Committee the fact that the remuneration of some of the men employed was wholly unsuitable and were not such as any public, body would desire to pay. I can assure the House and my hon. Friend at once that the object and the result of the reorganisation on the lines set out in the Tomlin Report will he very substantially to improve the position of the clerks and of the registrars. At the present moment, consideration is being given to the method of applying the new organisation to the existing staff. We intend to avail ourselves of the services of these officials, and their experience will make them valuable. It is also our intention to see that they get better terms in regard to salary, and that suitable pension terms will be included. I can assure the House that their position will be materially improved.

10.0 P.M.

With regard to the District Registrars, us here the abolition of a Registrar involves loss of office, which will not happen in many cases—we are not taking a short cut to abolish every Registrar at once—where this involves loss of office the question of awarding reasonable compensation would necessarily arise. The exact basis in each case depends upon the terms of employment. Some of these officers come within the Superannuation Act and some do not, and consequently they have to be separately dealt with. I think the result of this scheme will be substantially to improve the general position of these officers.