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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. 

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