Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Those 114 files

In the first office I worked in, an outpost of the Ministry of Transport, every file ever opened since the organisation started (in the 1920s, if I recall correctly) was still on the registry shelves if not circulating for action. Certainly, purely transitory material was weeded out from time to time, but one could read the history of highways in London and, earlier, the whole of south-east England in those records. If a file went missing there was a hue and cry until it was found - usually in the cupboard or briefcase of a forgetful civil engineer.

As outlying offices were absorbed into the main MoT, filing systems were reorganised and ancient documents were archived in a huge depot at Yeading, near Heathrow. But as far as I know, they were catalogued and could have been retrieved if necessary.

So I was somewhat surprised to learn that one hundred and fourteen Home Office files which may have been connected with the investigation of paedophilia in high places have gone missing. Not only could they not be found, there was no record of what had happened to them, as Theresa May indicated in a statement to the House of Commons yesterday.

Since my days in the civil service, the accumulation of paper must have increased massively, because there have been at least two exercises in destroying files considered no longer relevant. Former Home Office minister Jack Straw revealed in his contribution to yesterday's proceedings that in his time he had found the department's procedures to be iffy.

Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): While welcoming today’s announcements by the Home Secretary and the observations by her shadow, may I press her on the issue of record keeping? When I became Home Secretary, it became very clear to me—I was asking for information in a quite unrelated area—that there had been a downgrading of the archiving and record-keeping functions of the Home Office. I say that in a non-partisan way, because this issue has continued and is made more complicated in the so-called digital age. Will the Home Secretary ensure that both panels look very carefully—taking advice, if necessary, from the head of the National Archives—at the adequacy or, I am sure, inadequacy of existing mechanisms and resources for ensuring that proper records are kept, particularly in areas such as this?

Mrs May confirmed that one of the things her new panel will be looking at is the background to the files' disappearance.

[Later] Mark Sedwill, permanent secretary at the Home Office, questioned by the Home Affairs Select Committee this afternoon, was unable to shed any further light on the missing files. However, he did say that investigative skills were not part of his armoury and that bringing in an outside professional might help. He had appointed Richard Whittam QC to head the panel looking into the matter. Further, practice in the Home Office had changed so that accusations received by the correspondence section of the department were referred immediately to the police.

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