The Council of Irish Genealogical Organisations’ continues with its campaign to obtain full access to data recorded about deceased persons from the United Kingdom’s war time National Register. After high profile campaigns led by renowned professional genealogists Steven Smyrl (CIGO’s executive liaison officer) and Guy Etchells, at the end of last year the National Health Service Information Centre (NHSIC) finally conceded a public right of access to data from the National Register. It introduced its ‘1939 National Register Cost Recovery Service’, but then astounded all by disclosing only the data as recorded on the 29th September 1939 and continuing to withhold subsequent annotations to the register about dates of death and changes of surname. The NHSIC invoked section 44(1) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which is an absolute bar based upon the premise that some other piece of existing legislation provides an exemption against disclosure. The NHSIC held that such a bar to disclosure was contained in section 42(4) of the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007.
However, CIGO believed otherwise and in June decided to challenge the NHSIC’s policy. We requested disclosure of the date of death from the National Register for a Mr. Theophilus Collins Baldwin who was born in Ramsgate, Kent on the 9th October 1847, which made him born 163 years ago! We were aware that Mr. Baldwin was said to have lived to a very great age. In due course the NHSIC refused our application and in turn we appealed to the UK Information Commissioner. On CIGO’s behalf the Information Commissioner approached the NHSIC and indicated that by the 17th September they must either disclose the requested data or apply the exemption and then await the Commissioner’s adjudication in the form of a Decision Notice.
At the very last minute, on the 17th, the NHSIC disclosed that Mr. Baldwin died on the 24th January 1948, aged 100! In their letter the NHSIC indicated that “in future any requests for information about date and place of death, where we hold this information, will be part of the 1939 National Register Cost Recovery Service”. Given this, CIGO advises that in future when using the Cost Recovery Service specific mention should always be made by the applicant that they require all data noted in the National Register.
In communication with the NHSIC the Information Commissioner stated clearly that he was of the opinion that “section 42(4) [of the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007] is irrelevant when it comes to considering whether disclosure would be prohibited [by that Act]”. Further, he questioned the NHSIC’s interpretation of the term ‘personal data’ indicating that “the Commissioner’s definition of ‘personal data’ requires that information must relate to an identifiable living individual. Information about the deceased does not constitute personal data”. In its response the NHSIC admitted that its reliance upon section 44(1) of the FOIA was wrong and that the requested data should not have been withheld. The Information Commissioner’s Good Practice Team has now been called in to work with the NHSIC to “improve its general request handling”.
CIGO’s success is yet a further validation of its public access policy regarding the National Register and clearly demonstrates how the Freedom of Information Act 2000 can be successfully utilised to the benefit of genealogists.