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FCO review on release of colonial records says files were a ‘sort of guilty secret’

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has published the findings of a review into why a collection of 8,800 colonial records from the former British territories had not been placed in the public domain. The review, into why the records were not treated in accordance with the Public Records Act 1958, was undertaken by the former British High Commissioner to Canada, Mr Anthony Cary. The existence of the files (known as the ‘migrated archives’) in the FCO archives only emerged as a result of the High Court case brought by four Mau Mau veterans over alleged human rights abuses by British colonial officials in Kenya in the 1950s. The High Court is set to rule on their claim shortly.

The review states:

As a consequence of confusion over ownership, the Kenyan migrated archive was left in limbo: neither accepted by the TNA [The National Archives] for the public record, or formally acknowledged by the FCO. Unless it catalogued the files and conducted a full sensitivity review, the FCO could neither release the files (whether to successor Governments or to private repositories) nor consult them in any systematic way for the purposes of FoI and other search requests, nor even apply for a Lord Chancellor’s instrument to authorise retention of them. But no such review was conducted. In part, this was because of resource constraints: the Department has struggled to keep up with the annual statutory requirement to select, review and redact files for acceptance by the National Archives [TNA], and in recent years it has also faced an unrelenting flow of FoI requests. But in part it also reflected a failure by successive senior managers to grip what should have been seen to be an unresolved and potentially explosive problem. 

On the question of why the Kenya files were not identified or searched at the time FOI requests were received by the FCO in 2005 and 2006, the report states:

Lack of process documentation and misunderstanding about the importance and searchability of the archives explain the failure only up to a point. I think it is fair to say that these misapprehensions were only half believed, at least by the more thoughtful and knowledgeable staff. It was perhaps convenient to accept the assurances of predecessors that the migrated archives were administrative and/or ephemeral, and did not need to be consulted for the purposes of FoI requests, while also being conscious of the files as a sort of guilty secret, of uncertain status and in the ‘too difficult’ tray.

The review recommends that the FCO conducts a full inventory of the information it holds. In a written ministerial statement, the Foreign Secretary said:

I believe that it is the right thing to do for the information in these files now to be properly examined and recorded and made available to the public through the National Archives. This will be taken forward rapidly. Given the size of the archive the process may take some time to complete in full. It will be overseen by a senior and independent figure I shall appoint…It is my intention to release every part of every paper of interest subject only to legal exemptions.

See also:
Mau Mau torture files were ‘guilty secret’ – The Independent
Court approves release of documents in Mau Mau trial – Leigh Day & Co.

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