Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160-167)


28 MARCH 2006

  Q160  Chairman: The Information Commissioner has told us that his office has met with difficulties when there are disputes about whether or not the authority holds the information that someone is asking for. Is that an area where you can give more advice, and who really could be involved in challenging the response: "Oh, we do not have that kind of information"?

  Natalie Ceeney: Can I ask my colleague Susan to answer that one?

  Susan Healy: We have issued guidance on the disposal of records and the importance of documenting the disposal of records, and we have talked to the Information Commissioner about this as a particular issue with a view to our coming up with more guidance which would perhaps get to the bodies which do not necessarily have qualified record managers on the staff because, perhaps, they are smaller. We are about to issue a new series of guidance, which is aimed at smaller organisations and which will be expressed in user-friendly fashion, explaining what it is about geared to the records management code, and we are hoping, in this way, we can bring home to the smaller organisations the fundamental things that they can do, without necessarily being too expensive, which will help them get over this problem. One of the things which we do is encourage them to know what records they have, know what they keep, for how long they keep it and what gets destroyed when, and we hope that will get around this problem which the Commissioner encounters in organisations saying, "We do not have this information", and we do not know why they do not have it and we do not know when they stopped having it.

  Q161  Chairman: Do you think you should be sent in, like the Flying Squad, to have a look where the authority cannot produce a documented record or has destroyed the document?

  Natalie Ceeney: That is an area we have discussed with the Information Commissioner about using our expertise to help. We have tended to take the approach more of a consultative rather than an enforcement body, because I think what authorities tend to need is help and guidance rather than necessarily a sort of hit squad. We do that informally already with a lot of bodies and we have talked with the Information Commissioner about playing a more strategic role in helping bodies as required.

  Q162  Chairman: That may help for the future, but it does not help them to resolve a difficult case where there is no certainty or proof that that document or class of document is not still being held?

  Susan Healy: What you are looking at is balance of probability. Is it plausible, is it credible when the organisation says that it knows it had these records once but they do not exist any more? What the Commissioner can do, and is already doing, is to look to see what is the pattern of records management for the organisation? Have they got processes in place which make a credible claim that this information was destroyed at an agreed date? You have to look at the question of whether or not there were records destroyed in an orderly fashion as part of a whole package of records management organisation.

  Q163  Chairman: There has been a huge change. Vast amounts of data which used to be on paper are now held in electronic form. We are moving into a period where only relatively recent events can be traced by electronic records, and you have expressed concern that a lot of information that is not provided might simply disappear completely over a relatively short timescale, the next six or seven years, simply because the mechanism by which it is held is not as robust as traditional paper. Where do we go on this one?

  Natalie Ceeney: Maybe I should say a little bit about the issue and what we need to do to tackle it. The big challenge is that managing electronic just is not the same as managing paper. What everybody is used to in paper record management terms is you first create a record, then you create a paper file, you put it on a shelf and it can usually last for a couple of hundred years if you do not do anything particularly dire to it. In an electronic format the chances of us opening a document that is more than five to seven years old and reading it and the format being intelligible, let alone your computer being able to read the floppy disc, is quite low unless you take active steps to preserve it. That is a pretty new concept. The other thing that is new in this field is the technology itself. There are no off-the-shelf digital preservation solutions out there to buy at the moment. We are not only talking about new practice, we are talking about completely new technology. What are we doing about that? Essentially consortiums of libraries and archives across the world, of which we are a key player, are working on the principles for digital preservation. We are ourselves at National Archives spending seven million pounds over the next couple of years to build a digital preservation system, because we have to take the lead, and we work with other archives and libraries to make sure the standards are right. What we are also trying to do is to generate interest amongst suppliers so that off-the-shelf solutions do become available. What we are also doing is sharing that information across government to make sure that the awareness of, first of all, the issue of digital preservation and, secondly, our experience of the technology gets shared so that we do not hit the crisis point that we are describing. The short answer is, if we do nothing, we are going to have a crisis, but the National Archives is working pretty hard to make sure that we do not do that.

  Q164  Chairman: At the moment there is no answer out there. It is not that departments are failing to do what you think they should do. They are waiting to be told what to do?

  Natalie Ceeney: That is absolutely right.

  Q165  Dr Whitehead: Does this mean that when it is being universally advocated that electronic records keeping is a good thing for authorities in general and, indeed, we have heard in earlier evidence that this might, for example, be making more information available quicker and at less cost than a search through the paper files, the down side of that is that there could be very substantial costs down the line for, presumably, transferring all the records, as is the mechanism at the moment, to whatever the latest form of digital retrieval is when the time comes and that, therefore, the overall cost might not be that much different in the end than keeping the stuff in a box in a file?

  Natalie Ceeney: There are a number of points there. The first thing to say is that under any records management system what is important (and I think this was illustrated by the police team earlier talking about disposal schedules) is that not everything is kept forever. Typically, for example, the National Archives take about 5% of government files, so at every stage you would expect weeding down of volumes, so what would transfer to a preservation system would not be everything; it would be a small volume. The second thing is the costs are going to be much more effective if we share technology. We simply do not know at this point what a preservation system across government would cost. It is inevitable that the cost will be far lower in future than it is going to cost now for us to build something, given the embryonic state of the technology. Regarding the economics long-term, essentially we are contrasting paper warehouses with staff and a large space, sometimes in Central London, with a big box of software, which we simply do not know the cost of. At today's cost, probably digital preservation is more expensive. In 10 years it could be the reverse. It could be that a big box less than the size of this room could hold information that previously massive warehouses across London would have held, and a lot cheaper. We simply do not know. What we do know is that we have got so much electronic information we simply have no choice than to build a digital preservation mechanism to store it at the end.

  Q166  Dr Whitehead: I was thinking in terms of the point that the witness made to us earlier today about the fact that a request could be refused or regarded as difficult to meet on costs grounds, because of an estimate of the paper trail research that would be required, when in fact information stored electronically could be retrieved at the press of a button. The suggestion here appears to be that actually it is not quite as cheap and straightforward as all that and that perhaps, if one took into account the down-the-line costs of the different forms of record keeping, maybe that calculation would not come out quite as positive as might be suggested?

  Natalie Ceeney: I think that is a fair assessment. The economics of electronic verses paper are also very different costs at very different stages. People have talked about electronic records management as being cheaper. It is at the point of retrieval, but electronic records management processing systems cost money in a way that maybe creating files in a paper office does not. It is a different way of charging the costs. However, I would say electronic records management with digital preservation backing it up does make access to information far faster and far more reliable in terms of being able to know what you have got and how to find it and get it quickly.

  Q167  Chairman: Can I ask you about one other thing which the Committee and individual members get representations about, and that is the issue of releasing census information. Of course there is a policy decision, which I do not particularly want to go into, about what view the Government takes about the conditions that are supposed to apply to censuses and what the effect on confidentiality would be. It is not about that I wanted to ask you, it is the practical implications for National Archive if, for example, the Government were to decide this year that the 1911 census ought to be released before the 100-year date or, indeed, that any other census should be accelerated. What can you tell us about that?

  Natalie Ceeney: The issue with the 1911 census is that it is a pretty huge document and it is not yet digitised or microfilmed. Our approach for census information has been, given its huge potential popularity to anyone doing family history research or local history research, to digitise it. We have plans in place to digitise it in the same way we did with the 1901 census. To give an example of why we think this is so important, looking back at the 1901 census, the ratio of people using it on-line verses on site is one hundred to one, and so we know that if we can digitise the census it is going to be immensely popular. The problem is that digitisation takes time and costs money. Our approach is to find commercial suppliers, as we did with the 1901 Census, who would take the commercial risk of digitisation, which is going to be hugely expensive, in return for essentially being able to release it to a wide audience, and it is also going to take a process of three to four years. If policy were to change or the Information Commissioner were to deem it open under FOI, the practicality is that it is very unlikely we would find a commercial supplier willing to take the 1911 Census and to digitise it while at the same time answering FOI requests, but also it would mean access to the few rather than the many, because we would have to stop digitisation in order to let anyone who wanted to walk on site see it, which would stop us doing the digitisation. The other thing to stress is that it is a paper document, and therefore, by its nature (almost 100 years old) is pretty fragile. It is fine for digitising. When people are going to leaf through it every day, actually it will quite quickly deteriorate. Our view is the best way of getting people access to is to allow us the time to digitise it and make it readily available to everybody.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. We are glad to have that view on the record. We are grateful to you for your help this afternoon. That concludes our formal session.

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