[Lead Image: Fair Use of an image in the public domain via Wikipaedia]
thePipeLine reflects on the implications of the Windrush landing cards scandal for historians and family history researchers
Mainstream media outlets, well at least the BBC, seem to have discovered belatedly that the UK National Archive at Kew has a whole section on its web site showing how you can trace personal family information about your ancestors who entered or left the UK in centuries past. However, since the Borders Agency destroyed the landing slips of the Windrush Generation in 2010 future historians and family history researchers have been denied another similar cache of information about the adults and children who arrived in Britain who arrived in the UK from the 1950’s into the 1970’s, as part of the Government’s drive to attract workers from the so called New Commonwealth to help rebuild the mother country after World War Two.
In fact the Home Office has inflicted a double whammy on the unfortunate National Archive because, thanks to the destruction of the landing slips, the nation’s repository of government documents has also been denied another cache of information it could have monetised through its partnership with genealogy company Ancestry.com like the searchable database of passengers arriving at UK Ports from ports outside Europe between 1878 and 1960 which is linked from the National Archive website.
Most importantly however, people who have lived in the United Kingdom for years, working, contributing to the nation’s good, some now well into their eighties, have been denied key historic records which might help them prove their right to indefinite leave to remain when Home Office officials come knocking in search of “undocumented migrants” to deport. A grandmother might even have been allowed back into the country, which had been her home for more than fifty years, after attending a family funeral in Jamaica.
The treatment of increasing numbers of the Windrush Generation is now widely admitted to be a national disgrace and it is one of the many tragedies of this dark mirror version of “The Thick of it” is that the crisis of confidence in the Home Office and its current and most recent Secretaries of State, was utterly avoidable. The Windrush Generation Scandal appears to have happened because no-one in the Home Office had enough sense of History to realise that when it comes to the destruction of historic public records, a short term gain in storage space, perhaps leavened with some politically driven cynicism, can leave you badly burned in the eyes of history and that history started a moment ago..
In 1834 it was the short term decision to tidy up by burning centuries worth of wooden Exchequer Tally Sticks in the antiquated heating furnaces of the rambling Palace of Westminster which led to the disastrous fire which, watched by cheering crowds, destroyed most of the medieval Palace and led to the creation of the modern House of Commons and House of Lords.
In 2018 it is the decision taken, apparently in 2009 and carried out in 2010, to destroy one of the primary records of the arrival of immigrants in the UK, the copies of their landing cards, which threatens to burn down the Home Office [metaphorically at least] and which in spite of frantic efforts by Prime Minister Theresa May, and Home Secretary Amber Rudd to damp down the flames, could yet spread to engulf more of Whitehall, including Downing Street.
The scandal of the Windrush Landing Cards developed rapidly after a whistleblower in the Home Office told the Guardian newspaper that the Borders Agency, then an arms length body under the Home Office and now subsumed into the Home Office, had deliberately destroyed the landing cards of people, many from the Caribbean, who had arrived in the UK in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The archive, which is reported to have contained tens of thousands of individual names, including of whole families, was held in the basement of a tower block in the London suburb of Croydon, filed properly by month of arrival.
Initially a Home Office spokesperson claimed that the destruction of the landing cards was in order to comply with data protection legislation. However, a brief investigation of the National Archive webs site shows that this excuse was utterly spurious, because there is an exemption under the 1998 Data Protection Act for historically important documents.
To prove this point, as Home Office officials, if not their press office, should be well aware, sensitive personal data is archived routinely both in Government and by the National Archive at Kew.
For example, in the case of the surviving registration cards for individuals who were classed as “Aliens” on arrival, the National Archive website states,
“13. Aliens registration cards
Owing to the sensitive nature of these cards, they are closed during the lifetime of the individuals concerned or until they can be assumed to be deceased. See section 16 for information about how to request restricted records under the Freedom of Information Act.”
It is also well known by family history researchers that data from the UK census, which has taken takes place every ten years since 1831, is archived to be released on a rolling basis as soon as the data becomes one hundred years old. Thus the records created by the 1911 census became available in 2011. World War One medal cards relating to individual members of the armed services who served in World War One are now also openly available, as are databases of passengers arriving in UK Ports and records from the 1939 Register of the UK’s population.
From that published advice it would seem that by destroying the landing cards at Croydon the Home Office prevented the creation of an easily accessible, resource, available to anyone trying to research arrivals after 1960 when the passenger lists held at Kew end currently.
It is also the case that, as anyone who has ever worked in an archive knows, multiple sources enable a researcher to fill in gaps in the existing records as well as providing evidence to correct mistakes, such as omissions or the misspelling of names. It follows that, even if there was an element of duplication with the records already held at the National Archive and that is still not clear, the destroyed archive could also have provided valuable additional corroboration for people who arrived in the UK prior to 1960.
While the primary concern in the current scandal is the deeply damaging effect the destruction of the landing cards may have had on the lives of thousands of people who are trying to prove their right to live and work in the UK granted under the 1971 Immigration Act, against the background of the Home Office policy of creating a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants, there is also an important principle at stake relating to how Government archives our history.
“…the archive of landing cards destroyed by the Home Office was therefore a gold plated primary source”
The starting point in this discussion is that the Government is obliged by Law [by the Public Records Act 1956 to be precise], to retain documents of historic importance and a measure of the importance of the destroyed archive both for people trying to prove their immigration status currently and for historians and genealogists in the future, lies in the comments of a retired employee of the Croydon office who told the Guardian,
“Landing and embarkation cards were kept in alphabetical order, and by month,” the former employee also confirmed that “it would show who else arrived with you; it would show the parents and the children that they brought with them”.
And it is not that everyone at the Borders Agency and Home Office was gung ho to save space in the filing cabinets, let alone destroy history. The original whistleblower also told the Guardian that there had been an attempt to have archive saved by digitisation. The source told the newspaper that,
“I suggested digitising but was told there were no resources,” The source also claimed to have protested to his line manager that the records were historically important saying: “Even if half the people are dead, they are historical records.”
The manager is alleged to have responded that in any case digitisation was not required as the cards were “redundant”.
As the world now knows, and the Home Office was warned by its own staff, that the records were, in fact, far from redundant and the situation became critical in 2014 when further changes to immigration rules, instigated while current Prime Minister Theresa May was Home Secretary, meant that increasing numbers of people, who were living in the UK perfectly legally, were required to prove their status to landlords and potential employers.
In a turn of events resembling a plot twist in Kafka’s The Trial, the Home Office, which required these proofs of residency and legal immigration status, had itself already destroyed one of the key means of individuals proving that status. Proof which many of those affected could not obtain from other publicly available archives.
This was because, as suggested previously, while records of precisely this type are archived and made available to the public on a commercial basis by the Government’s own repository, the National Archive at Kew, through its commercial partner, Ancestry.com, this particular database is of no help to anyone seeking to prove their arrival after 1960, but prior to the 1971 Immigration Act which gave many people arriving from the Commonwealth before 1 January 1973 “indefinite leave to remain” in Britain.
In that circumstance the National Archive website states,
“Passenger lists are not held by The National Archives after 1960, when air travel became more common. No air passenger lists have survived. For records of passengers after 1960 it may be worth contacting the relevant shipping line.”
It is difficult not to conclude that the archive of landing cards destroyed by the Home Office was therefore a gold plated primary source of the kind that historians and genealogists use to provide the fixed points in historical and family research.
However, for whatever reason, the Home Office chose to destroy the documents resulting in comments such as that of journalist Hicham Yezza who suggested on Twitter that there were now better records for the individuals who attended Eton in 1791 than for people who arrived in Britain from the Commonwealth and gave their working lives to the UK.
[Public Domain via Twitter]
Dr Bendor Grosvenor is the co-author of the book “Crap MP’s”and after the destruction of the Windrush Generation Landing Cards it is a racing certainty that any new edition of the book will contain several new entries.
Another expert adding their voice to the condemnation of the Home Office’s action is art historian and journalist Dr Bendor Grosvenor. Dr Grosvenor, committed his thoughts onto an illuminating and angry Twitter thread which concluded,
@UkNatArchives makes clear, personal data should only be destroyed as part of the retention process, not ad hoc. There is no way the Advisory Council, or indeed anyone with half a brain, would have sanctioned the destruction of the Windrush papers.”
Dr Grosvenor ought to know what he is talking about as he is a former member of the Advisory Council on Historic Documents which advises the Culture Secretary on precisely this type of question relating to archive documents. However, what Dr Grosvenor did not mention in the thread was that he should also know what he is talking about from a political point of view. He is a former adviser to the Conservative Party on Arts and Heritage issues and was a member of former Prime Minister David Cameron’s Arts Taskforce . He is also the co-author of the book “Crap MP’s” and after the destruction of the Windrush Generation Landing Cards it is a racing certainty that any new edition of the book will contain several new entries.
[Public Domain via Twitter]
As Dr Grosvenor suggests, had the Home Office decided to follow its duty under the Public Records Act and archived the Windrush landing cards this PR debacle would not have happened. Instead, critics say, whoever ordered the destruction of the landing cards and for whatever reason, the Home Office and or the Borders Agency allowed the destruction of important, possibly unique, primary historical record and in so doing created today’s firestorm of criticism which threatens to engulf the career of the current Home Secretary Amber Rudd, and perhaps also that of her predecessor, Theresa May the current Prime Minister, too.
“The National Archives complies with its legal obligations with respect to the Freedom of Information Act and the Data Protection Act.”
Asked if the National Archive was concerned that primary documents relating to a significant historical event, the arrival of the Windrush Generation, appear to have been destroyed by the Home Office/Borders Agency and are thus no longer available to historians and family history researchers a spokesperson for the National Archive told thePipeLine,
“Under Section 3 of the Public Records Act it is the responsibility of government departments to appraise their records and select those worthy of permanent preservation to be transferred to The National Archives or an approved place of deposit.”
In other words,
“Not up to us guv, we only take what Government departments give us, so if the Home Office wants to burn Magna Carta [and I wouldn’t put it past them as it has all that stuff in it about fair trials and the Rule of Law], that is up to them.”
OK so we made that last bit about Magna Carta up, but you get the idea. Civil Service officials in the various Whitehall departments get to decide what will and what will not be kept and that leaves the field open for embarrassing or “inconvenient” material to be slapped with an extended closure, filed in sacks in the basement, “lost”, or even deliberately destroyed as appears to be the case with the Windrush Generation landing cards.
Asked if the National Archive could confirm that historically important personal information, such as these landing cards, could be archived while retaining confidentiality, as is the case with census data less than one hundred years old and military service records, the spokesperson replied,
“The National Archives complies with its legal obligations with respect to the Freedom of Information Act and the Data Protection Act.”
The fact that census data is released on a rolling basis as soon as it reaches one hundred years from the date of the census, and is even made available commercially by the National Archive’s commercial partner Ancestry.co, suggests strongly that the plain English answer to our question is actually “Yes.”
The Archives and Records Association, which is the professional body which oversees policy and ethics in the archive sector, has not responded to a request for comment up to the time of publication.
thePipeLine is continuing to investigate the story.
It is interesting to wonder if ever in the field of British politics has so much been screwed up for so many by so few?
The shameful episode of the Windrush Generation landing cards has to be one of the most immediate and distressing examples of why the objective curation and dissemination of historically important documents is not just an esoteric academic concern, but can be a vital concern to a properly functioning democratic country. Indeed, thePipeLine would argue that the willful destruction of the Windrush Generation Landing Cards either as a matter of housekeeping [the charitable explanation] or of policy, or even out of institutional racism [the conspiracy theory], represents a mistreatment of historical data on a par with that of Ancient Aliens cultists, apologists for the Nazis, and other purveyors of fake facts.
It follows inevitably that archive and heritage professionals, and preferably their representative bodies, should be protesting the Home Office action from the rooftops and insisting on the introduction of a robust, transparent and objective systems for the referral of historical documents from Government to the National Archive and other public archives.
Never again should a single, unaccountable, Government official be able consign a cache of important historical documents to the shredder, or the furnace on the grounds that they are “redundant”, or because there is alleged to be no cash in the kitty for digitisation.
The people selecting the material to archive should be trained historians working independently of the departments whose documents they are assessing.
Yet stepping back to survey this whole sorry saga from the point of view of a concerned citizen, it is impossible not to observe also that takes a particular kind of Vogan like, tin eared bureaucratic incompetence to unite Labour MP David Lammy, the Daily Mail, right wing Conservative MP Jacob Rees Mogg and anyone who has a heart against the Government, but that is what the Home Office has managed to do over its handing of the fall out from the Windrush scandal.
All credit must be given also to Amelia Gentleman and the Guardian who have made most of the running in exposing the utterly shameful and cruel treatment of some of the Windrush Generation by the Home Office, of which the landing cards is just a symptom. It was good journalism, developed over months, which led to the humiliating u-turns by Home Secretary Amber Rudd and also to some hope for justice for the victims of the Home Office’s attempt to out Kafka, Kafka by the generous award of British citizenship to people who already had it under the 1971 Act.
Amber Rudd was of course merely the unfortunate politician left wielding the Whitehall poop scoop when the music stopped on the steaming heap of UKIP Lite policies left by her predecessor Theresa May [aka “the Maybot”] and the Prime Minister’s former advisers including Nick Timothy.
That is the same Nick Timothy who deleted his entire Twitter account after being caught being “economical with the truth” [aka lying] on Twitter about another aspect of Mrs May’s policy towards immigrants while she was creating a “hostile environment” as Home Secretary, the infamous, so called, “Go Home” vans.
And all this because someone at the Home Office signed off on the destruction of some historical documents which should have been sent to the archive.
This leads thePipeLine to offer one last historical perspective.
Following this latest debacle affecting thousands of innocent British citizens, which follows the totally unnecessary 2017 General Election which cost the Prime Minister her majority and left her being gaslighted in Number Ten Downing Street by an unholy alliance of right wing Conservative MP’s and the Democratic Unionist Party; and the serial omnishambles which are the ongoing Brexit negotiations; it is interesting to wonder if ever in the field of British politics has so much been screwed up for so many by so few?