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Corporate Due Diligence: Records in the Public Interest

on Tuesday, 23 August 2016.

At last year’s ARA annual conference in Dublin, we came in for (gentle) stick from some members for not being vocal enough when we see questionable things happening in the sector. We’ve been a bit more active this past year and, anecdotally, many of you say you have noticed and approve. For those who want us to do more, hopefully we’ll see you (and hear from you) at this year’s conference at Wembley from 31 August.

On the theme of speaking up, members may have seen reports that the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has apparently been grappling with a particular issue of late. It concerns Companies House, the UK’s official register of firms, the government agency where you have to deposit registration documents, annual accounts, lists of directors and shareholders, etc. when setting up and running a business in the UK. All very dry stuff, but important for helping the tax man and for ensuring that directors and shareholders follow the law. Of course, the recent use of offshore shell companies has devalued much of the information in the Companies House files. Much like the debate about tax ‘evasion’ and ‘avoidance’, clever accountants and lawyers have create such shell companies to disguise the real ‘beneficial owners’ of a UK-registered firm, ie import more secrecy into the system for the benefit of their rich and connected clients.

But it wasn’t always like that. Twenty years or so ago, when Companies House began digitising its information (and later, when it became accessible online for pennies), the agency had locked in priceless information about dodgy directors, shareholders with a history of money-laundering, including from some of the world’s more corrupt jurisdictions), scam merchants and (of course) the vast majority, who – more or less – played by the rules.

The registry now contains some records going back half a century. Investors, journalists, non-governmental activists, corporate recruiters and private sector due-diligence providers – among others – have been able to use it to look into the background of major and minor companies of all shapes and structures, and the people who own and run them. If there were something murky in an individual’s past (or present), the registry would help them find it.

In other words, the Companies House register has become an important public interest information tool in the fight against fraud, corruption and tax evasion at home and abroad.

No surprise, then, that there is a (literally) rich list of those who would like to see that situation changed. And so it is that a number of people - reportedly, because they are un-named - have tried to use the 2014 ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling of the European Court of Justice to have all records held by Companies House erased that are older than six years. No mention in all of this of the public’s ‘right to know.’ Of course, none of this was intended in the 2014 ruling and none of it is intended – according to everyone we have spoken to – in the new EU General Data Protection Regulation. But intentions have never stopped clever lawyers from exploiting and creating loopholes. More worryingly still, Companies House and the ICO appear to be wobbling.

There is a parallel here with proposals to privatise the Land Registry, the repository of data and records on who owns what land and property in the UK. Like the Companies House register, the vast majority of Land Registry transactions and details and the people listed on them are clean. And, as with the corporate register, there are weaknesses in the Land Registry system. But if individuals and companies do try to launder ill-gotten gains through the UK property market, there is a good chance that researchers may be able to trace this through the records held in the Registry. Privatisation would take the Registry out of the public space completely and, with it, public access.

Due to extensive and welcome cross-party concerns in Westminster, it seems likely that the Land Registry privatisation may be dropped, though it is not yet a done deal. However, individual ICO considerations and decisions are not subject to the same kind of direct Parliamentary oversight. The new Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, starts in a few weeks. We’ll write and seek clarification from her and her colleagues on the Companies House issue.

The good news is that lots of organisations and groups have picked up on the Companies House story. There was a good piece in the Guardian by Roy Greenslade two weeks or so ago. And an ARA Board member pointed out an excellent piece in the latest edition of Private Eye (1425), which will appeal to many members for its Byzantine twists and details!

If any of this bothers you as a records professional, drop a line to your local MP. It seems inconsistent at best for government to say that it will do everything possible to tackle money laundering, corruption and fraud, and yet contemplate allowing two key tools in that fight to be – literally – erased from the public space. Let’s hope that wiser counsel prevails. 

ARA London Conference 2016 - Conference keynotes will they be challenging you?

on Wednesday, 27 July 2016.

ARA London Conference 2016 - Conference keynotes will they be challenging you?

Weighing up whether to attend the ARA Annual Conference at Wembley from 31 August to 2 September? You've no doubt seen some of the innovations this year, such as a fully dedicated digital archives and preservation stream, plus the expanded information village, where we will be joined by representatives from sectoral bodies; a ll designed to fit the 'Global Futures' theme, as we face ever-increasing pressures to adapt to new financial and market realities. The Conference committee and its partners have again worked overtime to keep delegate costs as low as possible. Pound for pound (or Euro for Euro), the ARA Conference offers better value than all other comparable bodies in the sector. And we will again be subsidising the headline costs in 2016 through our conference sponsorship programmes.

This year, the Conference organising committee has also shifted the focus of its keynote speaker slots. ln 2016 we have invited leaders in the front-line - or at the frontier-of tackling major challenges facing our sector, people whose experience and drive will inspire you and offer practical answers to problems that you may also be grappling with. These will be frank and· very likely· provocative talks. Don't come expecting a string of feel good cliches or platitudes.

Our keynote speaker on the opening day, 31 August is Colin Prescod. Having worked in archives and heritage for around fifteen years, Colin is currently Chair of the Institute of Race Relations in the UK ( He has been involved for a long time with the Huntley Archives project at London Metropolitan Archives (one of LMA's most significant collections from the African Caribbean community). Colin will explore 'the global in the local', how the most local or smallest archive have disproportionate emotional impact and power in minority or displaced communities. He will take you out of your comfort zone and expose you to different ways of thinking about your collections and deposits, along with how you manage diversity and minority outreach.

On 1 September, our main speaker is Tina Staples. Tina is Global Head of Archives at banking giant HSBC Pic (www.·hsbc/company·history) and at the forefront of issues affecting archivists and records managers across the corporate sector, most notably data and digital preservation. She will discuss an issue that cuts across the public, private and voluntary sectors: 'Big Data in a Connected World: Friend or Foe?' Now fifty years into the so-called Computer Age, we face unprecedented data volumes. We have created more data since 2014 than in all human history up to then. One trillion photographs alone were captured in 2015, with billions shared online. By 2020,1.7 megabytes of new information will be created every second, for every person alive. Tina will explore if we -as a profession are even close to keeping pace and our future role now that every global citizen is preserving a mind-boggling range of born-digital records, and disseminating data and assets to ever-growing global audiences. In her view, professional record-keepers are key to meeting the challenge, but we need to persuade senior managers of this and take the lead in shaping a new kind of records and archiving culture.

On 2 September, Anthea Case, CBE delivers our final keynote. Since 2005, Anthea has been Principal Adviser to the Arcadia Fund, a UK based grant-making foundation, which supports endangered nature and culture ( Anthea currently chairs Arcadia's International Panel, which advises its Endangered Archive Programme (run by the British Library). From 1995 to 2003, Anthea was CEO of the UK's Heritage Lottery Fund and National Heritage Memorial Fund and, until 2010, Chair of the Heritage Alliance. She currently serves on the boards of a number of arts and heritage organisations. As well as updating us on the latest global view on grant-giving, Anthea will focus on front-line challenges facing the preservation and conservation community, notably the future of endangered cultural knowledge in non-western countries. As many members think about (or re-evaluate) their organisations' strategy for engaging with funding bodies, this is an opportunity to hear (and learn) from one of the leading thinkers and practitioners.

Don't delay,sign up now at /ara·ina·ction/the ara·conference.html

John Chambers, ARA CEO

Freedom of Information: the Records and Accountability Angle?

on Monday, 20 June 2016.

As many members will know, the jury in the Hillsborough Inquest issued their verdicts several weeks ago. Obviously, many members with Liverpool connexions took an even closer interest than the rest of us. But, as ARA, we’re also watching closely to see what happens now on the question of police records. The 2012 Hillsborough Inquiry panel – on which our good friend Sarah Tyacke was a key member - recommended that police records be added formally to the schedules of public records and archiving. A simple matter, you might be forgiven for thinking. And you’d be right. Yet, over three years later, the UK government has still done nothing. We wrote to the UK Home Office minister responsible, Mike Penning, last December seeking a meeting on this issue and (after nearly four months and having to send a reminder) got what can only be described as a ‘go away’ response.

You might be forgiven for thinking that this is a money issue: politicians cynically talking about the injustices of Hillsborough but not willing to stump up the small cost of ensuring it never happens again. It seems not. Money may have been a factor early on, but it looks (depressingly) as if our old friend bureaucracy might be the real reason for these interminable delays. There are rumours that the UK government may now ensure another few years of delay while it commissions a report on how and where police records should be deposited.

As we understand it, Sarah’s sensible view was that the decision should just be made and individual police forces be given time, modest funds and advice to find an appropriate local Place of Deposit. No one size will ever fit all in such situations, so a national-level scoping study (in England and Wales) is hardly likely to deliver a better, quicker or more cost-effective solution.

There is some good news in all this. While central UK government policy-making on records’ management looks incoherent and driven from silos, see recent press coverage of mental health trust records and defence records for other examples, at an operational and skills-development level, officials are showing a hunger for partnership and best practice. Our new CPD programme has caught the attention of some far-sighted people in Whitehall, and it is an opportunity for ARA to secure buy-in from a major sector constituency.

In Scotland, of course, there is the Public Records (Scotland) Act, which flowed from the influential Shaw Report and the scandal of decades of officialdom losing and misusing children’s records. For all its flaws (inevitable when people shift to something new) the PRSA has at least put an accountability floor under the public sector. And, when I heard, as I did in Glasgow recently, how Police Scotland is grappling with the culture change that this requires, expressed openly by its own staff, I could see (as an outsider) a genuine, positive direction of travel.

The other refreshing thing about Scotland is that it seems ok to learn by doing and sharing perspectives. Maybe the archives and records community in Scotland is just the ‘right’ size on the Goldilocks scale: big enough to have the range and depth of records and archives expertise across public, private and voluntary sectors; but also small enough to be able to come together and share perspectives, with some occasional kinetic energy!

On Freedom of Information, too, Scotland is showing the way. Of course, personal data questions remain the purview of the UK Information Commissioner (ICO). But on public accountability, Scotland’s Commissioner Rosemary Agnew is very much in the front-line compared to her counterpart in England. That doesn’t make for an easy life – she has a tough job - but it arguably makes for better public accountability. It was clear from my recent meeting with her over a coffee in Edinburgh that, in Scotland, everyone is finding where the new boundaries are, and that she (like others) relishes this and sees it as a strength.

This summer, we look forward to the appointment of the new UK ICO head, Elizabeth Denham from British Columbia.  We’d like to have heard her at Conference but she can’t make it. She’ll have her hands full on Freedom of Information. Fears persist that the UK government is planning to reduce citizens’ rights to information, under the pretext that such enquiries might ‘prejudice the conduct of public affairs’. My time as a civil servant taught me always to be chary of sweeping language: it gives cover to those with little regard for public accountability to drive a coach and horses through – or over - citizen rights. What a politician or senior civil servant might see as prejudice or unnecessary scrutiny, a taxpayer and citizen might rightly see as essential accountability.

Another worrying idea doing the rounds is to abolish the ‘first-tier tribunal’, the body that hears appeals from citizens dissatisfied with responses to their FOI requests and the decisions of the ICO. Figures suggest that the tribunal currently upholds appeals in around half the cases it hears. The first response of governments in less accountable countries when tribunals rule against them is often to abolish or replace the judges rather than focusing on doing the job right the first time. I would hope that the UK government aspires to be better than this. Just saying…

Records and freedom of information don’t make it on to most people’s list of the politically exciting and stimulating. But for our community there is something in the air in Scotland and an energy that others can learn from. And for all the admirable self-awareness in Scotland that things are still far from perfect, it also proves the old adage that ‘there is always someone worse off than you.’ There’s never been a more important time for ARA to be active in records management advocacy in the UK and Ireland, but especially in England. See Laura Hynds’s piece in the July edition of ARC Magazine for an example of how individual records managers can make a real difference (in her case, on the NHS England health records code). The need for our ‘Don’t Risk It!’ campaign has never been greater. We’ll be working up a second phase of activity this autumn.

This may not be the right place to quote Mao – he was hardly a friend of democratic accountability, and we certainly don’t want a thousand flowers to bloom when it comes to records management. But we can at least agree that a long journey starts with a few steps. On police records, Scotland (and the London Metropolitan Police) seem to be in the vanguard. I need to find out what is done in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. My instinct is that they will offer even more good practice that Westminster officials could learn from, as well as save more wasted years studying and re-inventing the wheel on improving police records management in England and Wales. 

Remembering departed friends and colleagues

on Monday, 22 February 2016.

Last time out, I promised to share some thoughts on Freedom of Information (FOI). As many of you will know, the government has been reviewing FOI since the 2015 general election. Records are our business, so any changes will inevitably impact on ARA members in the public sector. We have been trying to engage with the new senior team at the Information Commissioner's Office for a while, and have finally got a meeting lined up next week. So, I'll write about that next time.

Meantime, we've been grappling with an issue on which many people have strong views and which we're not sure we've quite got right in the past. When the archives, records-management and conservation community loses someone who has contributed much to his/her profession, shouldn't we at ARA mark their passing, remember their contribution and enable members to add their own thoughts and memories? Shouldn't we also be in the business of establishing an 'archive' of our own on those who have meant a lot to us personally or professionally? Also, would it not help the family who have lost someone to know how special they were to others? We do have an obituaries space in our Journal, but the nature of publication schedules means that it is often a year after someone's passing that we recognise the fact.

There are reasons, of course, why we've hesitated in the past. We don't have the in-house resources to commemorate everyone we lose in the way that we would like to, whether through a memorial service or a written obituary. Putting a two-line notice on the website of someone's passing, for example, could even have the opposite effect, and seem callous. And if we chose some to remember, it would mean not remembering others, and we're never going to get that balance right. How on earth could we judge who was 'important' and who was not? To close family and friends, everyone is important. Finally, we can only do something when we know something. Sadly, we often only find out some months after having lost a member, and sometimes only at annual membership renewal time.

But all of these (justifiable) challenges shouldn't stop us from trying harder. Other organisations find a way to do it, after all. We reflected, following the recent sad news of Derek Charman's passing, that we should be doing things better. Coincidentally, our project team was also finalising work on the ARA Cloud-based NAS system, which will enable us to manage more effectively our own internal records. Several people kept referring to the outstanding contribution to this project by ('the late, great') Carl Newton. (I'm even going to suggest we call the new system 'CARL' in his memory.) Another member wrote in about Rosamund Meredith, who was 100 years old when she passed away last September. Others we have lost this past year include John Cantwell, Michael Willis-Fear, Chris Jeens, Miss E Melling, Leanne Neal, Shirley Corke and Dr W.A.L. Seaman. Apologies in advance if I've missed anyone else.

I sat in on a chat that John Chambers and David Mander had about this the other day, and here's what we're planning to do. We can't (and shouldn't) operate a hierarchy of who is deserving of 'official ARA recognition' and who is not. The most practical solution we can think of is to put it in the hands of individual members and let you decide on a case-by-case basis, while giving you the tools you need. So when we reconfigure the website, which should be done by the spring, we will create a new obituaries page (probably under 'News'), along with pages where members can post notices and comments.

There will of course have to be some ground rules – on length of obituaries, getting a family member's permission, etc. – and some sensitive policing of the pages. But we'll try to keep these to a minimum. Susan Healy and I will edit draft obituaries before Lorraine puts them up (Susan will continue to manage obituary entries in the Journal as well; that bit won't change). Then it will be over to you. We'd just encourage, as a routine, that anyone posting a notice about a member having passed away also inform the Chair of their local regional committee or specialist section.

What are we hoping for? So many members leave a lasting legacy during and after their careers. It should be a basic principle that they are recognised. But it is also important that the next generation of aspiring archivists, records-managers and conservationists should know of them and what they achieved.

Of course, the usual blog rules apply here. If you think we are going about things the wrong way and have a better idea, please email or tweet or even write in on vellum. I doubt we'll get the change entirely right at the start (who ever does?), but hopefully we'll at least begin in a better place than we are at present.

Help when you need it?

on Wednesday, 06 January 2016.

At the Dublin conference this year, we were lucky enough to hear from Gary Brannan at York University on the issue of the emotional impact that shocking images can have on archivists in the course of their work. If I recall correctly, Gary used the example of dealing with photos of dead bodies in coroners' records from the early part of the last century. (I am told that Gary also did a presentation on this issue in 2014).

Several people have since asked John Chambers and me independently what we were doing more broadly to provide support to members facing difficult or potentially-traumatic work environments. Colleagues raised concerns about coming across disturbing child images in public enquiries and worries about the human and public access implications of budget cuts and restructuring of their archive services or records offices. Some seemed almost embarrassed to bring the subject up. It is easy in such circumstances to treat 'afterthoughts' as rhetorical or not serious, and they get forgotten. But we didn't want to let this one slide by un-noticed. The question is: is there broad demand among the ARA membership for an on-call service to help with emotional support?

The issue came up again just before Christmas when John and I met Sarah Tyacke, whom very many of you will know as one of the UK's most distinguished and (refreshingly) plain-speaking archivists. Her role in the Hillsborough enquiry has given a massive boost to the public accountability value of archives and record keepers. No, Sarah, confirmed, no-one had thought of this when her team of archivists and specialist records managers was drafted in to help get to the bottom of a tragedy that claimed 96 lives 26 years ago. We have seen, in the past fortnight, reports on the failure of the UK Ministry of Defence to protect important archives located in south-east England related to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. It is going to be down to archivists to clear up this mess; some might understandably be concerned about being placed in roles of such political and legal sensitivity.

It is also clear that archives and records offices everywhere have come under pressure to cut staff, services and operating costs in the past few years. Members who find themselves in difficult decision-making positions and those on the receiving end deserve our support. We are not a trade union, so there are limits on what we can do organisationally and in campaign terms, but if you were facing redundancy or having to make decisions on dispensing with long-standing and highly-valued professional colleagues, would it help to have a confidential counsellor you could talk to?

These days, there seems to be a major public enquiry every year in the UK and Ireland to address some public policy or governance failure from the past. Further, with freedom of information rights seemingly doomed to a major write-down (more on that next time), members may find themselves in more pressured situations. Add to this the prospect of more public records and evidence being retained as images in the digital and smartphone era.

But there's nothing worse than someone telling you what to think – even if well-intentioned – or what's best for you. Many people may prefer to just stiffen upper lips in times of strain and 'carry on.' So, when we ask you on whether you would value having an emotional support service available (as will happen in the next few weeks), please speak frankly either way. Meantime, our sincere thanks to Gary and colleagues for bringing up this important question - and for keeping it alive.

Jon Elliott - ARA Head of Public Affairs

on Tuesday, 03 November 2015.

Jon Elliott - ARA Head of Public Affairs

Lorraine in Taunton (who, as any fule kno, makes all the really important decisions at ARA) and I have decided to try and get the website blog going again. There will still be ARA Today, of course, plus the occasional tweet. But a blog allows us to at least express a train of thought, and if it seems to you incoherent, patronising or just plain boring, you will of course let us know...

Mid-October started with a push to try and get the UK Parliament's administration committee to think again about its decision to recommend the end of recording acts of parliament on vellum. Part of our worry is that they don't seem to have looked at the total costs of doing so, as well as the huge potential impact on the work of conservators if the one remaining vellum supplier were to go to the wall. Members' letters to their MPs have already had an impact: keep 'em coming. We've also written, and members of our all-party parliamentary group have offered to table questions. Also, we've been getting more involved in the emerging proposals for managing health records by NHS England, many of which (notably on retention schedules) appear... well, inadequate, to put it mildly.

Last Tuesday, archives took centre stage. I popped up to Liverpool for the Northwest ARA region's AGM. Things got off to a bad start when I turned up at King's Cross in London for my train only to realise that it was going from Euston. So after legging it over and missing the train by a whisker, I took the next one up and had the additional pleasure of getting re-acquainted with Crewe while waiting for the (late) connection. (Kevin and his Northwest region colleagues were remarkably forgiving of all this.)

You're probably thinking: typical southerner, or (if feeling more generous) that it must have been a while since I'd made that journey if I couldn't get the right London station. Truth is that the last time I was in Liverpool was in 2006, when my wife and I were planning our wedding in North Wales. For that, we flew from Paris – where we were living – into John Lennon airport and drove in less than an hour to the majestic Berwyn Mountains. We didn't need London to get to Liverpool. In fact, I realised that I had never travelled to Liverpool from London before: it had always been from somewhere else. From Wales, where I grew up; university, in England; and numerous times on trains and planes from points east and west.

In 2006, I remembered how much Liverpool seemed to have changed since my earliest visits as a student and then in early working life. The 1980s and 1990s were painful time for the city but it was never short of hustle even then. When we stopped by in 2006, the bustle was very clearly back. Yesterday, insofar as you can glean anything from a few hours' visit, there was that definitive 'civic pride' buzz that makes the city – for me at least – very special. A few pints after the AGM at the outstanding Philharmonic pub on Hope Street, with its delightful Victorian heritage, old dining rooms and very 'today' organic Liverpool Brewery ales, no doubt helped the general feel-good. (It was also great to see our new President, Alex Buchanan, there).

It's not all good news in Liverpool and the Northwest region, of course. Our local members and their services face staff cuts, mergers, wage freezes, shorter opening hours and seemingly never-ending rounds of having to justify the value of what they do to people who don't really understand the sector. Colleagues elsewhere will recognise this particular tune. What did someone clever once say about those who know the price of everything but the value of nothing....?

Ok, it's a two-way street: there is an onus on us to find ways to 'sell' the value of our members and their services to decision-makers in a language they understand. We have reason to be confident; good decision-making at all levels has always started with good information. And you'll only get good information if you manage and archive your data and records well. That's why, as Liverpool's Margaret Procter skilfully reminded us at the ARA conference in Dublin, some clever people decided to set up archives and records centres hundreds of years ago. But, as Kevin reminded us, his daily reality is now making archives fit 'the growth agenda' of his wider organisation. No mean feat.

Then the question came up: are archives tough enough in charging people for their time, especially media types who make those 'Who do you think you are?' programmes or niche documentaries about Liverpool's extraordinary maritime heritage or the Manchester to Liverpool railway? Are archivists too accommodating at times, because they are passionate about their collections (or just too well brought-up to ask)? The National Archives are pretty robust about charging outsiders, but they are a big beast and get around two TV crews in a week making some kind of programme or another. So, they can hang tough. But if you run a small archive or records office – or are one-person conservation team - and the mighty BBC call up, how do you handle it? Not so easy.

Truth is that several people brought this up in different ways - privately - at conference in Dublin. It has been in the 'must do' tray since. Liverpool was a timely reminder. So, we will put together some guidance for members on how they might handle such situations. We'll first trawl the membership for experiences you have had and how you dealt with them: chances are that we already have a huge body of expertise waiting to be collated. We'll include some scenarios to watch out for, eg tricks that clever people use to try and get for free what they should (and can afford to) be paying for. I hope it'll end up as something 'live' that can be updated according to people's experiences.

ARA members play a vital role in safeguarding our past and ensuring public accountability. Our members would never put an absolute financial value on what they hold or manage, and rightly so. But when providing a bespoke service that others use for their own commercial profit, it is only right that you should receive some recompense to help with upkeep of your offices or collections. It may, in future, mean their survival. In that regard, a little more of good old-fashioned Liverpool hustle might serve us all well.