Collecting Modern Medals
Volume 46, Number 7, August 2008
YOUR OPINION COUNTS THE Ministry of Defence has recently announced that they are holding a public consultation with regard to the fate of the Armed Forces Personnel Records which it plans to transfer to the National Archives (TNA) over the next few years. Under the Public Records Acts when government records reach 30 years of age they must be either transferred to the NA or destroyed, alternatively permission must sought from the Lord Chancellor for the records to be retained in the originating department for administrative or other purposes. The MoD started transferring the records of Armed Forces personnel who served in World War I to TNA in 1996 and these have been invaluable for genealogists and us medal collectors however it continues to hold a substantial number of service records which are over 30 years old under permission from the Lord Chancellor and the challenge now is what to do with them? Bearing in mind the near hysteria that surrounds “Data Protection” these days the MOD has announced that their aim is “to develop an enduring approach that protects personal data appropriately whilst allowing researchers and historians the opportunity to make use of a valuable historical resource” — hence this public consultation. In essence the problem they face is how to balance the needs of people like us, the historians (be they military or family) and the Freedom of Information Act that allows us access to things we never thought possible with the need for privacy and the Data Protection Act that seems to fly in the face of the former...! It’s a fair point, after all, whilst most of us would be delighted to know more about the recipients of our World War II groups many of these files may well contain particularly personal details that would, if released, cause concern or embarrassment to the individual or their living relatives. For example, they may contain information about the physical or mental health of the person to whom they relate or may well indicate if they were convicted of an offence. Information may even be as intimate as records of sexual activity! Unfortunately the sheer volume of records that we’re talking about, even in the early stages of transfer (which include 170,000 records for soldiers born before 1895 but who served after the end of World War I and 4.5 million records for those that enlisted in the Home Guard during World War II) negates any chance of checking them all individually for “sensitive” material but a number of checks are proposed. These include the “sampling” of records to see the nature of the data they are dealing with; the scanning of the records for availability on-line whilst at the same time removing all identifiable medical forms and the insistence that no record would be opened until 100 years after the serviceman’s birth unless proof of death can be provided. These of course are not fool proof — after all, records may contain information about third parties whose birth date is not 100+ years ago but the MoD and TNA say they are prepared to take this risk. The first thing that struck me about these “checks” was the upper age limit — more and more people are living to be over 100 these days and I wonder if actually 100 is old enough, especially as this will set a precedent going into a future that may well see many more Centenarians (Centurions?). However, that wasn’t what really filled me with foreboding — that was reserved for the idea of getting a third party to scan the documents for on-line viewing whilst at the same time allowing them to destroy the medical and more “sensitive” files. For those of you who aren’t aware, when TNA fi rst arranged to have the Medal Index Cards scanned for posterity and ease of use only the information on the front of the cards was scanned — when in fact the rear of the card contained a great deal of information too! To make matters worse TNA then proposed destroying the cards, meaning that valuable information would have been lost forever. Thankfully the Western Front Association intervened and saved the MICs which are now available in their entirety on Ancestry.co.uk. Is history about to repeat itself? What does that word “removed” actually mean? Are valuable records about to be destroyed forever? Are we to lose part of our history just because a third party deems it sensitive? As I said, my first reaction was one of deep foreboding and I was ready to fire off a letter to the MoD explaining why I and most historians want to look at records that are complete and not tampered with in any way. After all, once these records are gone, they are gone. However, after a while I got to thinking about things — yes, we want to research the recipients of the medals we now hold as fully as possible and we want to know everything about them. But now and again it does us good to remember that the people we are researching are, or were, real live human beings with thoughts, feelings, hopes and dreams just like we all have — and they had the same human failings and frailties that we have. So is it, I wonder, right of us to probe every aspect of their lives? Yes, a full record would paint a better picture of the man, but is it right that we should know everything about him and does it matter if we don’t? I don’t know, I’m playing Devil’s Advocate here; the researcher in me wants to know everything, the man in me thinks that some things are better left alone! If you want to take part in the consultation you have until September 30 to write to The MoD Service Records Public Consultation, DG Information, Floor 6, Zone G, Ministry of Defence Main Building, Whitehall, London SW1A 2HB or to visit http://www.forums.mod.uk/feedback/PublicConsultation.htm
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