What does the Windrush landing cards scandal mean for family historians?

By Rosemary Collins, 25 April 2018 - 10:04am

Family history expert Peter Calver told Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine that important records could be lost under data protection laws

The Empire Windrush arriving in Britain, 21 June 1948. (Credit: Daily Herald Archive/ SSPL/ Getty Images)

Data protection legislation could mean that important historic and personal records are at risk of being destroyed, a family history expert told Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine following the revelation that the Home Office destroyed thousands of landing cards belonging to Windrush immigrants.

The government has faced criticism over its immigration policy following revelations that Caribbean-born citizens who came to this country as part of the 'Windrush generation' and their children have been threatened with deportation and denied medical treatment after being told they had insufficient documentation to prove they had the right to stay in the UK.

It then emerged that the Home Office destroyed the landing cards, which could have supported the Windrush citizens' immigration status claims, in October 2010 under the 1998 Data Protection Act.

Peter Calver wrote in his family history newsletter, Lost Cousins, that the scandal was "no surprise" and, beyond the humanitarian concerns, had wider implications for the preservation of historical records.

He warned that "the focus on preventing data falling into the wrong hands has also prevented it from finding safekeeping in the right hands!"

Peter explained to WDYTYA? that individuals ought to have the right to prevent their data from being destroyed and that it was difficult to tell which records would prove to be of historical interest.

"Look at the range of records that are already online for family historians - as diverse as passenger lists, dog licences and tax records," he said.

"Who can say what will or won't be useful in the future?

"Perhaps Tesco's Clubcard records will tell more about how people really lived in the 21st century than anything else?

"Most of us have problems remembering what happened when we were younger, in particular when it happened, and in which order things happened - even the smallest clues can help us reconstruct our lives.

"We try to do this for our ancestors - we certainly ought to be able to do it for ourselves!

"I appreciate there are practical problems in giving individuals a right of veto over the destruction of information that relates to them - but we can still try."

The Windrush generation - named after HMT Empire Windrush, which arrived in Britain from Jamaica in June 1948 - emigrated to Britain from Caribbean countries between 1948 and 1971.

The UK government, seeking to address postwar labour shortages, gave many of them citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies under the 1948 British Nationality Act.

A Home Office spokesperson said that the landing cards proved an individual's date of entry into the country rather than their ongoing residence or immigration status, and it would be "misleading and inaccurate" to suggest that they were relevant to immigration cases.

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