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Monday, December 28, 1998 Published at 17:03 GMT

UK Politics

How top secrets become common knowledge

Files go through various checks before being made public

On 1 January, the government will make public documents kept secret for the past 30 years.

These public records are certain to have a dramatic impact on the way people look back at the events of 1968.

But even after the New Year, some of the most sensitive documents will remain secret for the time being - while others will never be fully revealed.

Government departments accumulate miles of files every year, each of which has a different fate - either eventual publication or the shredder.

For instance, of the files the Foreign Office accumulated in 1968, only a small number will be made public this year.

All of the Foreign Office's records are stored in the remote Hanslope Park deep in the heart of rural Buckinghamshire.

It is here that the decision is made whether to hang on to ageing files for a few more years, destroy them, or allow them to be made public under the 30-year rule.

Too secret for 30 year rule

There is a continual process of culling files that are no longer relevant.

But more than 40% of the Foreign Office material survives the cull.

[ image: The majority of files are shredded]
The majority of files are shredded
Some documents will be judged too secret to be published after 30 years and will not become public knowledge well into the next millennium.

Those that are published end up at the Public Record Office in Kew, London.

Andrew Macdonald, from the Public Record Office, explains: "If you can imagine one shelf mile of records that is the quantity of material that comes in the public records office at Kew every year.

"A whole mile of shelving is filled. Now that represents no more than about 5% of the total records created by the government in the first place.

"Now, it is clearly critical that we determine together with the government departments which 5% it is that is selected and comes to the Public Records Office."

Before the papers are finally released to the Public Record Office, they go through a final check at the Foreign Office.

Sensitive information

Heather Yasamee of the Foreign Office says: "Before releasing the files to the Public Records Office, we have to make sure that there is no residual sensitivity in the papers.

"Now the end result of this exercise is that we release practically everything - some 98% - nevertheless we go through every page to identify any potentially sensitive reference which would cause harm."

The review process is carried out by retired ambassadors and civil servants who look out for anything which could damage national security or endanger people.

All applications to keep files shut are finally determined by the Lord Chancellor's advisory council on public records.

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