On 8 January, the Guardian reported a claim by a police whistle blower that the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) had shredded documents illegally. The documents were reports on Jenny Jones who is a Green life peer which were held by the domestic surveillance team. The team gathers intelligence on domestic extremists. The officer claimed they were destroyed to prevent future disclosures. In response, the police explained that they had investigated the claim and nothing was found to substantiate it. They explained that “the unit was responding positively to demands to improve its document retention procedures by destroying information that it had no need to retain and that therefore, should not be retained.”
A records management question requires a records management answer.
To a records management professional, the claim seems dubious. The question that needs to be answered is whether the police managed their records correctly. If they have, then there is no issue. We cannot answer this question definitively without access to the material in question. Instead, we have to rely on what is known publicly and infer a possible answer from that public information. We start by analysing the police statement in light of records management principles and practice.
We shredded documents to improve the way we retain documents.
The police explain that the shredding was needed to improve document retention procedures.
No evidence supporting the allegations that there had been any inappropriate destruction of documents was identified. In fact the lead detective in the case, who spoke to all potential witnesses as part of their investigation, found that the unit was responding positively to demands to improve its document retention procedures by destroying information that it had no need to retain and that therefore, should not be retained.
The information, especially if it relates to a person is going to be a record. As a record, it will need to be retained or destroyed according to the organisation’s retention and destruction guidelines. Thus, there are two immediate questions to answer. The first is: “What is the organisation’s records retention schedule?” The retention schedule will list how long records are to be retained and why. Second, “Where is the disposition log?” When an organisation disposes of records it has to follow a disposition process that records what has been destroyed. Here it is important to differentiate between information, which does not need a disposition log, and a record which would require one. A disposition log is how an organisation can prove that it destroyed a record correctly. The second question is “Where are their retention guidelines?” As mentioned above, the retention guidelines explain how long a record is to be retained. If the police are destroying records or documents, they have to be able to explain the criteria for the decision.
We did not destroy information to keep it from being disclosed. How do you know?
Leaving aside these issues, the response takes a curious, almost defensive, turn.
In particular, the investigation found no evidence to support allegations that information had been destroyed in order to avoid its release as responses to either Freedom of Information Act or Subject Access requests.
What is unclear is why they responded this way as the officer claimed the material was destroyed to prevent future disclosure. He did not claim that a current request was thwarted. The police statement raises further questions.
In fact it found that what information had been held on the relevant databases in relation to the individual referred to by the officer in his allegations had been appropriately released to that individual following their requests for that information and that this had happened many months prior to the time the officer claimed the information had been inappropriately destroyed.
They have implied that they could destroy the documents because they had already disclosed them. If personal data was collated for a SAR response, then that material would need to be retained. The material is a record and not just “information”. Thus, a disposition log would need to be completed if it was destroyed.
The Catt judgement makes this appears glaringly inconsistent.
The incident creates a contradictory position. The Police disposed Jenny Jones’ records quickly yet the same unit insisted that Mr Catt’s records be retained forever. Mr Catt was an elderly peace activist who asked the unit to destroy the personal information they held on him. He argued that he was not an extremist so his details should be deleted. The MPS argued all the way to the UK Supreme Court that his personal data had to be held indefinitely. By contrast, the MPS were trying to dispose of Jenny Jones’ material from the same database. What explains this inconsistency? Why was it necessary to delete or destroy Jenny Jones’s records and information but unnecessary to delete Mr. Catt’s especially as he asked to have his records deleted. From a records management perspective, the inconsistency is problematic for good records management.
The case raises questions about the way the state defends our information rights. The police have behaved in a problematic and inconsistent manner. One hopes they will be able to explain why they have an inconsistent approach and what happened to Jenny Jones’ records. In particular, we hope they can provide a disposition log and retention guidelines. If they cannot provide these documents, it suggests they have more work to do on records management. Without good records management, our access to justice is severely compromised. Is this what we expect from a government and a police service in the 21st century?
 Information is what is contained in a document. A document becomes a record when it records or captures an organisation’s business decision. According to the ISO15489 definition, a record is “…information created, received, and maintained as evidence and information by an organization or person, in pursuance of legal obligations or in the transaction of business.” http://www.armedia.com/blog/2010/03/what-is-a-record/
 https://www.supremecourt.uk/decided-cases/docs/UKSC_2013_0112_Judgment.pdf The judgement means that the police can retain indefinitely Mr Catt’s records even though he has been convicted of no crime nor has engaged in any violent or dangerous activity. As an elderly peace activist, it is unlikely he would pose an ongoing or continuing threat to the United Kingdom. See for example, the following by Net Pol “The Supreme Court appears to view the deletion of John Catt’s ‘nominal’ records from the domestic extremism database as a significant indication of an “intensive regime of statutory and administrative regulation””. https://netpol.org/2015/03/03/catt-judgment-supreme-court/
We used to shred documents on a regular basis simply because after a period of time we simply ran out of space. The introduction of new technology and the digital age has brought a sea change. No longer are we required to rent expensive storage space in a warehouse and carefully ensure the documents are kept free from damp or other hazards. Instead, if they did not already exist in a digital form, we can scan them in and keep them forever. The Police and Intelligence Services have a doctrine that the more information they have the better they are at analysing it and from which they can protect the public. The only reason they therefore have for the deletion of these files on Jenny Jones is because they had something to hide. The Met are an organisation that have existed since 1829, and despite scandal after scandal they will continue to exist and that allows them to take such draconian steps against the liberty of others.
Spot on Lawrence. In order to examine this issue, the investigating officer should have enlisted the advice of an independent records manager or RM expert to properly examine the RM practices and procedures in place within the unit and determine what precisely occurred. I doubt this examination of the documentation took place – it certainly wasn’t reported – only interviews with staff. The investigating officer is unlikely to have personally been an expert in RM.
In addition to the measures that you mention, I would also add a couple more that are needed for a thorough investigation of defensible disposition.
Firstly, there should be a check done on precisely when the records received their retention schedule and what retention schedule(s) they were previously assigned. It is possible for a records manager to change the retention schedule for a record that is originally slated for long-term preservation, to a shorter period, specifically to make it “legal” to destroy it earlier. Any changes from the original retention schedule, particular recent ones prior to (or after!) destruction, can therefore point to behaviour that is out of the ordinary. This should be able to be determined by examining the history of the records if the documentation has been kept properly (this type of supplementary RM documentation or metadata should be kept forever).
Secondly, there should be a check done on what other records were destroyed as part of the same destruction event. Records managers don’t selectively pick out individual records for destruction, even if they are due for disposal. Instead, they batch them up and destroy them on a regular basis, perhaps quarterly. By examining the cohort of records, and not just the ones under investigation, one would therefore expect to be able to find a number of records related to other matters, but with the same retention schedule or duration, that were all disposed of as part of the same event. By looking forwards and backwards in time the investigating officer should also be able to find the same regular pattern of behaviour occurring. For example, similar events occurring in January, April, July and October of the same and previous years.
Only by consistently finding these established patterns of behaviour regularly occurring, and with other non-related records, can we be confident that the records in question were properly and routinely destroyed. If on the other hand there is any evidence that these particular records were singled out in any way then the investigation needs to delve deeper, going beyond simply interviewing the staff concerned and starting to look at, for example, email trails and other wider documentation, as well as asking who carried out and authorised the unusual behaviour, and for what reason, etc.
Unfortunately, and I base this only on the media reports, it does appear superficially that a full and proper investigation may not have been undertaken in this instance. Perhaps, in the name of transparency, there needs to be an FOI enquiry for access to the investigating officer’s case notes to determine just what the extent of the reported investigation was? At the moment the public only has access to its conclusions.