Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Freedom to Destroy Information

The Freedom of Information Act came into force on 1 January 2005.

In an article published in The Times of 23 December 2004, Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, questions the usefulness of the Act to the public although admitting civil servants may be motivated by genuine rather than mischievous concerns in shredding papers or deleting emails.

Maurice Frankel

Frankel states without any sort of deliberate attempt to evade the Act they might be getting rid of stuff which the public might expect to be able to see. At the same time they are being provided with the opportunity of getting rid of anything dodgy. You can speculate, but you cannot say unequivocally that this is a cynical ploy to avoid the Freedom of Information Act.

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The Daily Telegraph of 31 December 2004 contains an article by Ben Fenton on the same subject though he treats it more lightheartedly. The article is accompanied by a photograph of Dame Stella Rimington, former director of The Security Service (MI5), standing in the strongroom at the National Archives.

Dame Stella Rimington

We asked Benedict Crumplethorne, spokesman for the society, to comment on Mr. Fenton's article.

It is not clear what Dame Stella is doing in the strongroom, apart from posing for a photo opportunity. The reason for choosing a former director of MI5 is not made clear to the Telegraph reader. However we believe she was chosen because she is a qualified archivist who worked briefly in local government archives and served as a member of the Archives Task Force whose report seems to have disappeared without trace.

If the National Archives proceeds along thelines of the British Library, we may soon have corporate hospitality sessions in TNA strongrooms. The Society of Qualified Archivists will book a session.

Bring a bottle!

Whilst on the subject of access to strongrooms, we have been contacted by the benighted Garth Bland, County Archivist of Loamshire. He has been approached by the secretary of the North East Loamshire Branch of the Loamshire Family History Society with a request to allow public tours of the strongroom.

I am in a rather difficult position on this one. Under guidelines from the National Archives [formerly the Public Record Office (PRO), ed.] as a Place of Deposit for Public Records, we are advised to restrict access to the strongroom to archives staff or persons authorised by them [see Beyond the PRO: Public Records in Places of Deposit p.11, ed.] We take authorised persons to mean outside contractors, internal auditors, architects, engineers, line management and elected members, under supervision, which is still pretty wide-ranging. However, we in Loamshire draw the line at members of the public. After all, we undertake in our dealings with depositors in particular prospective depositors, to offer their collections security against theft, damage and falsification as stiplulated by BS5454. Apart from that, tour parties would adversely influence temperature and humidity levels.

The difficulty is that the members of the North East Loamshire Branch of the Loamshire Family History Society have recently been on a tour of the strongrooms at the National Archives. This puts us in rather a difficult position. It is possible that TNA can operate tours in less sensitive areas and while we in Loamshire are also concerned to increase access to and awareness of archives, our strongroom contains confidential adoption, children in care and adults in care files and legal case files and contracts. I can see the front page of the local paper right now!

Garth's position has also been made more difficult by the neighbouring Wessex County Record Office, that of Angela Frump, advertising combined tours of its strongrooms as Sticky Bun Days. Such activity, Garth says, is bound to worsen the conervation situation as well as jeopardise security.

The situation will no doubt develop.


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