Records management and the Wanless Report on Home Office files

Home Office

Home Office (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Peter Wanless and Richard Whittam QC were commissioned to review two previous reviews commissioned by the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office in relation to child abuse. The first review focused on allegations about organised child abuse sent to the Home office. The review looked at what the Home Office did about the allegations and whether Home Office staff were involved in, or implicated in, organised child abuse. The final part looked at what action was taken. The second review looked at whether the Home Office ever directly or indirectly funded the Paedophile Information Exchange.[1] They reported that they could not find the Dickens Dossier nor could they say that a cover up had or had not happened. In his evidence before the Home Affairs committee, Peter Wanless explained that the Home Office records and the police records at the time were in a “mess”.[2]

Records provide historical accountability

To records managers, the outcome is not a surprise. Records management is rarely a priority for organisations and was less of a priority 30 years ago. Even in the age of computers, senior managers usually overlook records management and it lacks the attention needed to make it as robust as required. However, this is a secondary issue. The primary concern is the review. The following are a few points that illustrate concerns with the review, some of which the authors identified in their evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee.

Talented but are they the right people on records management?

  1. A CX and a QC conducted the review. Neither was chosen for their records management experience. In their professional roles, they are unlikely to have daily records management experience. They are at the summit of their profession. They have other people to manage their records, provide them with the documents, and seek out files within the system. The records management system works for them. As they rarely, if ever, have to file papers or consider how their records are organised, they are unlikely to have explored how records systems are designed or used.

Limited terms of reference undermined the review

  1. The terms of reference limited their ability to interrogate the systems, procedures, or personnel. The investigators acknowledged this point. Moreover, as the requests cut across a large number of organisations, they had to rely upon each organisation’s search method. At best, one can say they did a thorough but superficial trawl across the organisations.

To catch a poacher, you need to think like a poacher

  1. The investigators are intelligent, skilled, and experienced, but neither has a background in records management systems. To put it directly, neither are poachers. They are not bureaucrats who can make documents disappear.[3] They need someone to assist them who has hidden files, who has made them disappear, or designed ways to keep them from a regulator or an inspector.[4] Moreover, they needed to talk with the records managers and the people who ran the record management system. They did interview senior people, but they are usually removed from the daily work within the systems.

We asked very senior officials at the Home Office in the early 1980s if they could recall whether there were files about particularly sensitive matters. (paragraph 9)

An in-depth review might have tracked down any officers who worked on or with the files that were found. They could have explained the context and use of the documents in the way that the Home Office Whistle blower helped to explain the PIE funding issue and another member of staff identified helped to explain the context for the funding.

Wide ranging but shallow, what does it mean?

  1. As it was a review of previous reviews and did not include in depth interviews, the review could only provide a superficial review of the systems. They did not explore processes, structure, or efficiency in any detail.[5] Some systems are designed for purposes that do not provide external transparency. The system works for those who use it. They were not designed to provide transparency for external investigators as there was no reason to believe it would be needed when created. Moreover, the system will appear incomprehensible to those who do not know how it works. The investigators were at least two steps removed from the system and the records as they existed. Unless you have someone inside, especially from that time, to walk you through the file system and where and how records can be hidden or disappeared, it will provide a superficial understanding of the issue. The one contemporary witness, the Home Office whistle blower, makes this point.

What you look for is often what you find

  1. They relied on a keyword search system.[6] This is the basic records management approach. The approach assumes the documents are labelled this way or have metadata that would identify it.[7] In their testimony, the investigators understood this point. They understood that code words for sensitive files could be used to hide their true nature. Many organisations keep sensitive material hidden behind code words so that a casual, or inadvertent glance, will not reveal their contents. Thus, one would have to be initiated into the system to understand what they contain. In most large organisations, they will contain files so that only those with a need to know can find them or see them.[8]

Bureaucracies create accountability but only so much for so long

  1. Despite what people dislike about bureaucracy, it does create accountability. Procedures and processes combined with record keeping create accountability. For example, J. William Leonard insisted that the correct process and procedure when documents were classified. The documents were records about the abuse of detainees. His loyalty to the process (the law) kept the files from being hidden.[9] The Home Office system did not lend itself to such accountability.

Where was the National Archives in this review?

  1. For records managers, there is an omission with the review. The investigators and the Home Affairs Select Committee did not address this point. The government’s best resources, its top people, on records management were not involved. The National Archives is the government’s records manager. However, the government did not use them. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is involved with records management and access to information regimes. Why did the government overlook them? On the surface, it might have been that they wanted independent reviewers. However, the need for records management expertise should have been apparent.

Records management is usually an afterthought

The report captures the problems that the records managers face. Records management is rarely a priority for organisations. Until there is a crisis, senior managers tend to overlook records management and take it for granted.

Time for England to have its own Shaw report?

The report shows the Home Office and the police were poor at keeping records. Records provide historical accountability. Without records, it is hard to hold the past to account. The authors recognise this problem and recommend that records management improve. However, the case reminds us that England needs the equivalent of the Shaw report.

[1] The report and associated documents can be found here.

[2] The testimony from Peter Wanless and Richard Whittam QC at the Home Affairs Select Committee can be found here. (at 12:13:20) As with any testimony, it is important to consider body language of the people testifying.

[3] What is curious is the amount of records presumed destroyed, missing, or not found, in 1984-1985. There is no explanation for that destruction in the report. See p1 and see the same on p2 but for 1984, 85, and 86. What was happening in the department at that time would be something to explore.

[4] This does not mean that people intend to do something illegal. On the contrary, they may believe they are doing something to protect the company, which means that it is legal. In any organisation, people hid bad news, poor performance, and mistakes. It is part of human nature. Where it is done with a criminal intent is a different matter. However, the difference between human nature and criminal intent is decided in a court. Few records management systems are tested or displayed in the court. Yes, many court cases revolve around records and how they are managed, but the issue is more the content of the record rather than the structure and outcome. To put it directly, it is hard to distinguish between fraud and incompetence.

[5] As others have pointed out, Wanless and Whittam were given limited time to conduct their review and it was focused on a specific topics with limited terms of reference. For the origins of this review, see this site.

[6] Here is what they asked in their investigation.

[7] I have seen others make the same point. Researchers who have looked at historical documents understand this problem. The historical records are carefully vetted and scrubbed for legitimate reasons (national security) as well as dubious reasons (vanity and reputations) as well as criminal reasons (something done that while not overtly or clearly illegal could indicate such illegality)

[8] In their testimony, they do point out that where they found allegations of a crime reported to the Home Office, it was duly reported to the police. However, this, as they explain, only shows what they found not whether anything was hidden.

[9] The process was William Leonard refused to classify documents to protect them from disclosure. His decision forced the US government to track and disclose, as well as capture the decision process along the way, regarding the abuse of detainees. see (p.1204).









About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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