Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Proposed national archives legislation

It is nearly two years since the National Archives launched a consultation exercise on proposed national archives legislation. Since then, we have heard variously that the government has higher legislative priorities or the draft legislation is with the Department for Constitutional Affairs. With them for how long we don't know.

As far as higher legislative priorities are concerned, Christopher Booker laid this argument bare in his Notebook of 22 May 2005 in which he points out that far from the recent Queen's Speech offering a record number of bills (44), it offered a record low. In the post-war years, bills numbered up to 200 per new Parliament.

Booker goes on to point out this is attributable to a boom in secondary legislation or ministerial orders and European Commission directives, rules and regulations which latter category in any case dictate or influence both primary and secondary legislation. Annually, ministerial orders and statutory instruments now number on average 3,400.

Readers may recall it was secondary legislation in the form of the Units of Measurement Regulations 1994 (SI 1994 No.2867) ("the Units of Measurement Regulations") and the Weights and Measures Act 1985 (Metrication)(Amendment) Order 1994 (SI 1994 No.2866) under which the Metric Martyrs were convicted of selling loose goods by the pound. Michael Shrimpton, their lawyer, observed that not only was it abnormal to create criminal law by these so-called Henry VIII powers to amend primary legislation but that it was also abnormal for them to over-rule earlier primary legislation. Shrimpton's opinion and other relevant documents can be found in the British Weights and Measures Association's web site.

In view of all this we wonder whether we need primary legislation at all. Could not national archives legislation be introduced into law by statutory instrument?

And the consultation? Like all government consultations, the exercise was notable as much for the questions it didn't pose as those it did. After all, it was devised by members of the metropolitan elite. Can we expect the National Archivist to be a qualified archivist? Does it matter if the National Archivist knows anything about archives? (See A Whiff of Controversy and American Controversy)

Leicestershire Record Office: asset stripped by The Bod

Can we expect local government chief archivists to be given powers to compulsorily acquire collections threatened with dispersal? Will the new legislation curtail the poaching of collections? Will the splitting of collections such as the Herrick MSS at auction (now split between Leicestershire Record Office and the Bodleian Library) be condoned? Will there be a mechanism for disciplining rogue archives offices in this specific regard? Or will certain elitist institutions (libraries at that!) be considered to be official poachers? Why is there a hint of the UK following the US model and not our own? Why is the National Archives forging ahead with the Malvine Project and MoReq for the benefit supposedly of the east European accession countries of the EU if we don't have our own national archives legislation? And so on.

The Bodleian Library, Oxford

A degree of pessimism on the subject affects the profession, if only because of civil service inertia and cussedness (see Yes Sir Humphrey and Archives? What Archives?. It is an important matter because so many issues hinge on the non-statutory basis of local government archives services such as adequacy of funding, records management, electronic records, seniority of heads of repository and professional equivalence with museums and libraries under whose over-arching managerial control archives seems to be languishing.

We asked Ellison Millinocket, spokesman on local government matters, to comment on the case of Leicestershire.

We accept once an owner has decided to sell his archive a county archivist is faced with the almost unsurmountable obstacle of raising money to buy the collection or part of the collection. In the case of Leicestershire, the county was able to buy the Herrick estate records. However, The Bod was successful in buying the poetical MSS and having saved them, appear not to have considered returning them to Leicester, thereby undermining the crucial archival ethic of not splitting up collections. Unfortunately this also demonstrates the condescension local goverment record offices are up against. Perversely, those who have toured The Bod's facilities behind the scenes will know they are not the best.

Surely such poaching of collections is a primary consideration of national archives legislation?

SQA watches developments with interest and will comment further.

Further reading:

Infrastructure: Frameworks for service delivery A think piece report for Resource: The Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries On behalf of DCMS by Katie Norgrove, Museums Libraries and Archives web site.


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