ARA Calls for Action over ‘Windrush’ landing cards

The Archives and Records Association (UK & Ireland) today urges theUK government to clarify in detail how Home Office officials came to destroythe ‘Windrush’ landing cards a decade or so ago.  The decision– represents a disturbing failure to understand the significance of theserecords.

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ARA Urges Modernisation of UK Government Recordkeeping

Destruction of ‘Windrush’ landing cards part of a wider pattern of failure

UK law for, and management of, official records outdated and needs reform.

Fears that the new Data Protection Act could presage a wider ‘bonfire of records’

8 May 2018

The Archives and Records Association (UK & Ireland) today urges the UK government to clarify in detail how Home Office officials came to destroy the ‘Windrush’ landing cards a decade or so ago. The decision – that has only recently come to light - represents a disturbing failure to understand the significance of these records, for the current and individual needs of a significant part of British society and its sense of identity, and for future research.

As a society, we have a duty to preserve the records of those whose voice, historically, has been ignored, whose contribution has been insufficiently recognised and who have felt excluded from the mainstream. The Home Office appears to have treated as worthless records that were unique; they are now irretrievably lost. There is also a legal angle. The 1958 Public Records Act[1] requires that arrangements be put in place to preserve public records which ought to be permanently preserved.

The ARA also urges UK government ministers to publish the records retention policies of the Home Office, and the chain of custody and decision-making for the records in the Windrush case. At the same time, the ARA expresses solidarity with colleagues at the Black Cultural Archives (BCA) and the BCA’s statement of 18 April: https://blackculturalarchives.org/blog/windrush-solidarity

Wider Concerns

The Windrush example is just the latest example of UK government departments misplacing, losing, destroying or withholding important public-interest records, from citizens of the UK and other countries with a legitimate and legal interest in their preservation. Others include:

  • Mau Mau in Kenya (1950s)
  • Scottish children in care (1950s-90s)
  • Child sexual abuse
  • Primodos pregnancy test drug (1960s-70s)
  • Bloody Sunday (1970s)
  • Hillsborough (1980s)
  • Orgreave (1980s)
  • Infected Factor VIII (1980s)

The ARA’s Chief Executive Officer, John Chambers, said:

“Public records are the lifeblood of a functioning democracy. Without proper recording of important information, government cannot make informed decisions or deliver effective services; without proper preservation and accessibility of the relevant records, citizens lose democratic accountability and legal redress. It is clear from the Windrush example and others that the 60-year-old UK system of official record-keeping is no longer fit for purpose. Political parties of all stripes have neglected this issue for too long. After the Shaw Report a decade ago Scotland responded with a new Public Records (Scotland) Act in 2011. Westminster is lagging behind.’

The ARA urges the UK government to conceive a new Public Records Act that is fit for the 21st century. Such an act should include:

  • A legal obligation on public officials to record and retain important public interest data, information and decisions (and clear legal consequences for those who fail to do so);
  • Clear ethical standards expected of official record-keepers and their line managers, based on the precautionary principle and best international practice;
  • An obligation on public officials to consult local communities before public records are destroyed and to make provision to transfer records to local community-led archives;
  • New powers for government ministers to intervene to preserve corporate records and archives where there is a clear public interest (for example, following the collapse of a major public company);
  • Clear provisions that address the evolving recordkeeping needs of the 21st century on matters like digital preservation, web-archiving social media.

John Chambers added:

“There is some amazing work being done by UK government records managers, notably in the Government Knowledge and Information Management (GKIM) network. But too often decisions on official records appear to be made by ministers and civil servants in isolation, with no interest in, or respect for, their importance and knowing that there is currently no meaningful consequence for negligence or failure. If the community feel that they cannot trust government departments to preserve ‘their’ records, they will quite legitimately demand that government transfer them to local control.”

Data Protection

The ARA is also concerned that the new Data Protection Act (DPA) from 25 May (derived from the EU General Data Protection Regulation - GDPR) could presage the destruction of official records of significant public interest just because they may contain personal data. The ARA sees the risk from two directions: government departments trying to reduce storage costs, and misinformation concerning the requirements of the new data protection legislation.

John Chambers said:

“The new Data Protection Act is an inherently good thing. But there is also danger mixed in. The new Act and its EU basis (the GDPR) does not change one critically-important aspect of public, private and voluntary-sector recordkeeping: documents with a clear public interest value and purpose should be retained, selected for archiving and preserved for the benefit of current and future generations, whether or not they contain personal data. This means embedding good records management practice – eg into appraisal and retention policies - for all classes of records.

We face a potential ‘bonfire of records’ unless this risk is addressed. The UK and Irish governments should send out clear messages to both officials and the wider public about the need to retain important records. Departments must be given sufficient resources for implementing goods records management practice, eg appraisal and retention. Good records practice saves money; it also improves service delivery and efficiency.”

Notes for editors:

The Archives and Records Association (UK & Ireland) is the leading professional and membership body for records managers, archivists and archive conservators in the UK and Republic of Ireland. For further details, see: www.archives.org.uk or contact Jon Elliott (Head of Public Affairs) on 07587 635402

 


[1] https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Eliz2/6-7/51 (see: article 3: ‘selection and preservation’):  

-          It shall be the duty of every person responsible for public records of any description which are not in the Public Record Office or a place of deposit…. to make arrangements for the selection of those records which ought to be permanently preserved and for their safe-keeping.

-          Every person shall perform his duties under this section under the guidance of the Keeper of Public Records and the said Keeper shall be responsible for co-ordinating and supervising all action taken under this section.