FOIMan examines claims that 114 “missing” files are a sign of sinister goings-on at the Home Office.
“Most of these files were probably destroyed because the kinds of topics that they covered would have been subject to the normal file destruction procedures that were in place at that time.” Mark Sedwill, Home Office Permanent Secretary
Having been a records manager for nearly 20 years (12 September 1994 is the date that particular file was opened), I felt obliged to watch the Home Affairs Committee’s session with the Home Office Permanent Secretary this week, which was prompted by admissions from his department that 114 files which may have related to allegations of child abuse are “missing”.
The media and many politicians have been quick to suggest that this is evidence of a conspiracy. The MPs on the Home Affairs Committee were keen to demonstrate that their minds were superior to those of Mr Sedwill and of the individual who carried out the inquiry that had identified the problem in the first place. Michael Ellis MP in particular wore his derision proudly, and why not? After all, who else would have thought to check the registry index to find out where the files had gone? His contempt for officials who fall below his and Sherlock Holmes’s intellectual level did not appear to be assuaged by Mr Sedwill’s calm assurance that, yes, that was how they’d identified the problem in the first place.
So how odd is it that these files have disappeared? Well, first, let’s look at the statistics. By the Home Office’s own admission, out of 750,000 registered files, around 30,000 files are missing. This appears to suggest that the 114 missing files are not that unusual.
The Permanent Secretary also shed some light on the history of record-keeping at the Home Office. He claimed that between 1982 and the late 90s, the Home Office adopted a government-wide filing system, and for much of the 80s this was administered by registrars (he actually said that the department had adopted the Grigg filing system in 1982 – but I think he is mistaken; the Grigg system governs the review and disposal of files, rather than how information is filed). Crucially, he explained that filing was devolved to service areas, so sometimes files were destroyed in those areas without central registry being informed. In the mid-90s I worked for a central government Quango and part of my responsibilities would be to register files created by staff, often in other buildings. The system was creaking at the seams, and I would have been unsurprised to hear that colleagues were bypassing it – keeping information outside the system and disposing of files without telling us. Mr Sedwill said that the system before that was even less controlled – a civil service Wild West if you like.
Information professionals often hark back to a golden age of file registries, when every file was registered centrally. This account casts doubt on its qualities. The Home Office Head feels more comfortable with our present age with emails that leave “digital footprints”. It is an interesting perspective, and there is some truth in it.
The truth is that – as I’ve written before (and again here) and will almost certainly do so again – records management is rarely maintained to a standard that supports the kind of forensic investigation that these MPs expect. Where there is a strong driver for good record-keeping – say, the commercial imperative for pharmaceutical companies whose products could be removed from the market without comprehensive records that can be produced at a moment’s notice – it can be highly effective. But it requires investment and commitment from the top. For most organisations, this imperative is not as strong, and the result is that organisations don’t really think about filing in anything other than a derogatory manner. Filing is something interns do. Even in those organisations that do need to take it seriously, it is usually only possible to maintain high standards in specialist areas.
As for Mr Sedwill’s suggestion that these files were almost certainly destroyed because of the subject matter, this too has the ring of truth. (And now we rightly reference the Grigg system). The Grigg system is the approach taken to review and disposal of files across central government since the 1950s. Files are closed when they are a couple of inches thick or 5 years old, then reviewed after 5 years to see if they’re still needed. At that point a destruction date is given to files unless it is decided that they have long-term value. Those files are reviewed again after 25 years, and this is when files are selected for permanent retention at the National Archives for the benefit of future historians. Guidance given to departments indicates the sort of subjects that ought to be retained – and to my mind the sort of files that appear to have been “lost” don’t fit those criteria.
In an ideal world the Home Office would have reliable records of what they had destroyed over the last 30 years. But few of us live in an ideal world. Of course, that helps those trying to hide misdeeds, because they can hide in the forest of doubt. But I’d still agree with the finding of Mr Sedwill’s inquiry that there is nothing in the loss of these 114 files that can be taken as evidence of corruption at the Home Office.