FOIMan comments on reports that former Liberal Democrat Minister David Laws is refusing to hand over an infamous note to the National Archives.
We’ve seen plenty of FOI cases where the dispute was about whether the public body held the information concerned. There was Gove and Mrs Blurt, but there have also been disputes involving academy chains and private contractors and others beside.
This weekend it was reported that former Treasury minister and Liberal Democrat member of the coalition government, David Laws, was refusing to hand over the infamous note from Liam Byrne, his Labour predecessor, which indicated that there was “no money left” in 2010. The Treasury and National Archives have apparently both indicated that they would like Mr Laws to hand the note over as they believe it belongs to the State.
It’s not the first time that the ownership of historical papers relating to government has been a source of dispute. One of the reasons why there was so much criticism of the purchase of Churchill’s papers with £12.5 million of National Lottery money in the mid-1990s was that many believed that some of the papers were State papers removed by him when he left office.
When is a piece of correspondence a State paper and when is it personal correspondence? It’s not straightforward and just like FOI “held” decisions it will be a matter of examining the circumstances and context.
In this case, Mr Laws has indicated that he will leave the note to the State in his will. So why is this a big deal?
Aside from the potential financial implications, there are sound archival reasons why the National Archives will be keen to take custody of the note in question.
Firstly, a national archive is resourced to preserve documents for posterity. A note written in 2010 may not seem at risk, but in an individual’s possession it might be regularly handled, exposed to sunlight, coffee and wine spillage, and inadvertent misplacement. If Mr Laws is intending to wheel it out on the after dinner speaking circuit, these are clearly significant risks. That’s ignoring any inherent weaknesses in the paper – was it written on high quality acid-free paper or on cheap recycled paper that might yellow and fade faster? The National Archives’ conservators can slow and reverse damage to documents and all the better the sooner they have access.
Secondly, provenance or context is important when it comes to historical records. If a document is in the custody of a Record Office, locked away and only made public in controlled conditions, it is easy to prove its authenticity. If it is in private possession, and not properly safeguarded, then the risk is that it’s authenticity can be questioned. Doubt may arise that this is really the note that Liam Byrne authored. Maybe it’s been edited to make it more inflammatory; perhaps it was lost and replaced with a poor copy which failed to capture its nuances. This is perhaps less easy to demonstrate in this case where the history of a single paper has been well documented, but it is easy to see how it could become a serious problem with less public government files. How could we trust that they were reliable records of what occurred if we couldn’t be sure of where they’d been?
Mr Laws might have a good legal justification for believing that he “owns” the note. But given that he has already indicated his intention to return it to the State on his death, why not return it now? Refusing to do so might look to some like putting personal gain (even if just the kudos of being able to produce the controversial note at dinner parties) above service to the nation.