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Britain Just 'Found' Another 170,000 Unlawfully Withheld Government Files

VICE News exclusive: The British government just "became aware" of a huge trove of historic documents that should have been released to the public — but won't yet say what's in them.
Photo by Katie Engelhart

The UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) has uncovered a staggering 170,000 historic files that are overdue for review and release to the British public, VICE News has learned.

On January 21, the FCO's Minister for Europe David Lidington notified parliament that a "substantial number of legacy paper files" — meaning papers overdue for transfer to The National Archives (TNA) — had recently been located, as part of a massive audit of UK government offices and overseas posts. But Lidington provided scant detail of the intelligence contained in the documents.


The audit was launched in July, after FCO staff "became aware" that a number of legacy files were being held outside the FCO's main archives — in offices across Britain and abroad.

At least some of the files have been withheld from public view in breach of the Public Records Act, which requires that government documents be made public after 20 years (formerly 30 years), subject to legal exemption.

Dr. Tony Badger — a Cambridge University historian who serves as the independent reviewer of the FCO's yet-to-be-released historic archives — told VICE News that the FCO undertook an "extraordinary troll" of its file holdings last year. "It was quite a disruptive process… They went through all sorts of departments. If you go into the Foreign Office, you see all sorts of filing cabinets all over the place."

Badger added that "most, but not all, of the legacy records" would likely be copies of original papers, working documents retained for ongoing use, or ephemera, rather than than records "of long-term historical value."

But given recent events — namely, the FCO's habit of uncovering large troves of long-lost and sometimes damning historical documents in facilities outside London — it is likely that this new discovery will inspire further unease among historians, who accuse the government of working to hush up unflattering episodes in British history.

"Surprise, surprise. We've heard this before," Caroline Elkins, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of colonial Kenya at Harvard University, told VICE News. "170,000 files is a hell of a lot to find in filing cabinets."


The National Archives declined to comment on this case.

Contacted by VICE News, an FCO spokesperson said that his office had no further comment — but that it would reveal further information about the files by the end of March.

The papers are of particular interest to a group of British lawyers who are representing around 40,000 Kenyans in an ongoing, High Court group litigation against the FCO — over alleged abuses that they suffered at the hands of colonial authorities in the 1950s. A spokesperson for Tandem Law, which is leading the group litigation, told VICE News: "We think it is highly likely that there will be files relating to Kenya within that batch." Lawyers will now review the new records, in search of any evidence detailing imperial crimes in colonial Nairobi.

And historians contacted by VICE News are already eagerly speculating about what the files might contain — and what will stay lost forever.

Will the UK government ever release these secret files to the public? Read more here.

This whole saga dates back to 2009, when a group of around 5,000 elderly Kenyans began work on a lawsuit against the FCO (separate from the aforementioned case) claiming damages they suffered in the 1950s, during a colonial counter-insurgency against "Mau Mau" rebels in Kenya. That year, lawyers asked FCO officials if they had any relevant colonial-era documents — but officials insisted that they did not.


They did.

In 2011, the FCO admitted that it was illegally holding 1,500 Kenya files (nearly 300 boxes, occupying 100 linear feet) at Hanslope Park: a sprawling and secretive high-security government compound in Buckinghamshire that the FCO shares with intelligence agencies MI5 and MI6, and where British government scientists reportedly develop counter-espionage techniques.

Later, the office admitted to possessing 8,800 — and eventually 20,000 — colonial files, covering 37 former colonies, in breach of the Public Records Act.

Some of the Kenya files contained incriminating evidence of murder and torture by British colonial authorities. One file included a 1953 memo from Kenya's then Solicitor General, who noted that colonial detention facilities were "distressingly reminiscent of conditions in Nazi Germany or Communist Russia."

This evidence was used by Kenyan claimants in their suit against the FCO, which settled the case in July 2013, paying around £14 million ($21m) to thousand of Kenyan survivors — in what was the first ever pay-out by modern-day Britain to victims of colonial crime.

Other files referred to still more documents that were long ago destroyed — in some cases, through high-level government purge operations. In Uganda, for example, the colonial cover-up project was titled "Operation Legacy."

An independent inquiry into the colonial papers blamed the withholding on a cocktail of ignorance and ineptitude, but concluded that government officials had not acted deceptively. According to the inquiry, the Hanslope Park files had been inherited from another facility, to reduce storage costs, and then misunderstood and misplaced. The report urged the FCO to conduct a full audit of its working sites.


But the revelation fueled suspicion that Britain yet has something to hide.

In September, Dr. Mandy Banton, who worked for 25 years at the National Archives as a specialist in Colonial Office records, told VICE that she believes the withholding was "deliberate concealment. And who knows what secrets may remain."

Even after all this, the FCO did not let on that the 20,000 colonial files, known as "Migrated Archives," were just a tiny fraction of the office's unlawfully held annals. In October 2013, the Guardian revealed that the FCO was hoarding a staggering 1.2 million (later, revised down to 600,000) historic documents at Hanslope Park. Some of these date back to the 1800s and others detail British relations during the Cold War and end-of-empire period.

The lost documents reportedly occupy some 15 miles of floor-to-ceiling shelving.

Included in the so-called "Special Collections" are 50 linear meters of Hong Kong files and 77 meters of "Nazi persecution case files."

Last May, I was invited to Hanslope Park for the first official peek at the Special Collections. I meandered through rows of neatly stacked file boxes — with shelf titles like "Sierra Leone Arms Investigation" and "Sir Winston Churchill's Messages of Sympathy." I was also shown the personal desk diary of Donald Duart Maclean, the British diplomat-turned-KGB spy.

But I was not permitted to relay what was said that day by FCO officials. My tour, I was told, was "off the record."


Hanslope Park Archives. Photo by Katie Engelhart

Hanslope Park Archives. Photo by Katie Engelhart.

How Britain might have deliberately concealed evidence of imperial crimes. Read more here.

Meanwhile, the bulk of the Special Collections remains at Hanslope Park, still out of reach. A set of the files — 445 colonial reports — was released on 23 December, but progress is slow going. The FCO says that each document must be reviewed by a "senior sensitivity reviewer," who in some cases will redact documents before release.

The FCO hopes to prepare all high- and medium-priority files for release by 2027 — excluding the office's 267,956 Hong Kong records, which require "further assessment" over an as-of-yet-undefined period.

At this rate, it will be many decades — and, perhaps, many lifetimes — before all the files are released.

The FCO claims that the Special Collections release has been delayed because of under-staffing, and because the office has prioritized the release of more contemporary departmental files. The office wrote: "We are not retaining records simply because they are 'embarrassing' or because they shed a particular light on the past."

Last January, a group of eminent historians announced that they would consider suing the FCO to ensure the documents' prompt release.

"My God!" said Dan Leader, a lawyer at Leigh Day who has advised the historians, when told that another 170,000 FCO files had been unearthed. "This illustrates that the existing legislative framework for public record keeping doesn't seem to be working… This is a very worrying state of affairs," he told VICE News.


British government says it did not operate 'system' of abuse in colonial Kenya. Read more here.

The Lord Chancellor's Advisory Council, which reviews historic file transfers to Britain's archives, has approved a one-year legal retention, which will allow the FCO to hold the 170,000 files while it plans for their release.

No public announcement was made when the retention was granted and the Advisory Council did not respond to VICE News' request for an interview.

Elkins told VICE News that she worries about how the FCO will filter and redact documents, prior to their public release. The FCO said that only "around 1 percent" of the colonial archive was redacted — but Elkins doesn't buy that. She believes that the Kenya papers were "very much culled before they got to us."

David Anderson, another historian of the colonial era who has advised Kenyan claimants suing the FCO, told VICE News that he was "surprised" to hear about the files.

Anderson wondered whether the 170,000 records might include 13 "top secret" boxes of Kenya papers that the FCO admitted to holding in 1991 — but have since disappeared, without a trace. The boxes are believed to contain the personal papers of Jomo Kenyatta — the former leader of Kenya, at the time of its independence — which were seized by colonial officials in the 1950s. "That will be embarrassing for them," said Anderson. "The Kenyans will want them back."

In the early 90s the government declared 170 boxes of "top secret" British and Overseas Territories files as lost.

However, Badger, the independent reviewer of the Special Collections, told VICE News that he is "95 percent certain that [the top secret boxes] don't exist anymore… I think they were destroyed in the 90s." Indeed, Badger said he would be "very surprised" if the trove contained any Kenya papers at all.

In a written statement to VICE News, Badger added that he hoped this would be the last of such document discoveries. "It would be disappointing at this stage if more unreported documents were discovered in the FCO."

With respect to the broad mass of FCO historic files now retained at Hanslope Park, Badger said the office is working to speed up the process of "sensitivity review" and public release. He said that officials were assessing their procedure for review and redaction — and "trying to find a lighter touch."

Follow Katie Engelhart on Twitter: @katieengelhart