Steer for the deep waters only

Robert Day's thoughts on his photography, his writing and his business

Lord of the Files

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The political scene in the UK this week has been rather taken aback by the treatment of “Windrush children”, West Indians who came to the UK at the government’s request to help full post-war labour shortages but who are now at risk of deportation because after a change in the law in 2012, they are required to be able to produce documentary evidence of their right to reside in the UK or of their continuous residence in the UK since their arrival – evidence which was never pointed out to them that they would need, and which the government never provided them with in then first place.

The government has said that this is an unfortunate and unintended consequence of circumstances, that the “Windrush generation” made an invaluable contribution to the post-war regeneration of Britain and is of course fully entitled to reside in the UK, and that they will take the necessary steps to assist anyone in navigating their way through Home Office bureaucracy in establishing their right of residency.

I’m not going to get involved in this argument directly; I think the rights and wrongs of the case are too obvious to need pointing out by me. However, in the course of political argument, it emerged that the Home Office destroyed a large quantity of immigration landing cards from that era in 2010 as a general administrative clearout of obsolete files. At first, the government countered that these would not have proved right of residency (though they would have acted as the starting point for any potential paper trail of evidence); and then the Prime Minister, at PMQs, responded to criticism from Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, that the destruction was ordered in 2009 by the then Labour Government.

Things are getting badly obscured by the smoke of battle here. The fact was that the Labour government in 2009 set in motion the process by which government departments should start disposing of old and unneeded documents; they did not specify which documents were to be destroyed and which retained; instead, there was a process set out by the Cabinet Office (who have responsibility for these things) that Departments should follow in reviewing documents and files for disposal. It certainly seems to me that this was not being followed in the Home Office by October 2010 when the Windrush-era landing cards came up for consideration.

I took part in this exercise in the Government department I worked in at that time. The aim of the exercise was to economise on storage costs and to exploit digital scanning to keep as many documents as possible in electronic format. All files and/or documents that were considered for destruction had to be considered for scanning or retention if there was any anticipated need for them in future. And they had to be signed off by a manager individually.

I gather that the destruction of landing cards in the Home Office was opposed by caseworkers who understood their importance. My suspicion is that they were overruled, not by members of the political class, but by middle or senior managers of the sort who were parachuted into the civil service in quantity in the 1990s and 2000s from the private sector to introduce new, efficient ways of working and shake up those lazy, incompetent civil servants. Of course, these efficiencies take no account of legal requirements, precedent or best practice. Anything a “career” civil servant said to them was wrong, just because of who they were. These were the people who sent unencrypted data discs through the ordinary post because it was cheaper and quicker and it was an order they gave that had to be done right away and no argument or delay because dammit, I’m the boss. On the occasions when that went badly wrong and personal data was lost, the managers who had ordered those particular corners cut tried to blame the junior officer who had actually done the work, despite their having instructed that junior to bypass the standing instructions on encryption. That sort of manager considered such instructions to be “pointless bureaucracy”.

This all really goes back to the drive to take executive functions away from Government departments and put them in the hands of Executive Agencies in the Thatcher era. And that was done so that Ministers could continue to take the credit for good stuff that happens but weren’t responsible when things went wrong. Deputy heads could roll. It’s incompetence disguised as sound governance by people who have no idea how to run anything. (And Tony Blair’s New Labour fell for it too.) That’s Britain in 2018.


Written by robertday154

April 19, 2018 at 11:23 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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