Paper trail leads to need for archive

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 October, 2011, 12:00am


The lack of a law governing the preservation and disposal of government documents has long been a concern to anyone who cares about history and the need to archive important records so they can be studied by future generations. The absence of legally binding requirements mean records dealing with matters of public interest or having historical value can be disposed of for no good reason. The situation, according to archivists, is particularly worrying as thousands of officials are packing up for the move from Lower Albert Road to the new headquarters in Tamar.

It has been revealed that documents forming a pile as high as 1,182 metres have been destroyed over the past six months due to relocation. A quarter of them came from the Chief Executive's Office, the Chief Secretary for Administration's Office and the Central Policy Unit. The figures are alarming. The pile of papers is nine times taller than the waterfront headquarters. There is no evidence to suggest that the 14 bureaus have recklessly thrown away an estimated 3.5 million sheets of paper with high preservation value. The offices in Central have been in use for more than half a century, so it is not surprising to see piles of records created over the decades. No doubt, there are some which do not need to be kept. But the lack of legislation has made it difficult to assess whether or not some records should have been preserved.

The government argues administrative arrangements in place serve that purpose. A set of mandatory requirements have been promulgated in the form of an internal circular since April 2009. Departments must seek prior agreement from the director of the government records service before destroying any documents. They are also required to transfer records of value for permanent retention. No doubt it is a step forward. But so far only one case of non-compliance has been reported, raising questions as to whether the circular is adequate. Until statutory safeguards have been put in place, we can never be sure that future generations will be left with what needs to be preserved.