Page last updated at 11:56 GMT, Thursday, 29 January 2009

Secret papers face faster release

A file from the depository at the National Archives
Papers can be released earlier under the Freedom of Information Act

The 30-year rule on publishing confidential UK government papers should be reduced to 15 years, an official review has concluded.

Most papers are published by the National Archives after 30 years.

The review recommends changing this to 15 years by releasing an additional year's records each year from 2010.

The review panel, headed by Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, said the change would strike the right balance between "effective and open" government.

'Unnecessary secrecy'

If the proposals are accepted by ministers records for both 1979 and 1980 would be released next year.

Two year's worth of records would then be released every year until 2024, with 2009's records being published in 2025.

The review of the current rules, in place since 1967, was set up by Gordon Brown shortly after he became prime minister.

Also sitting on the review panel were historian Professor David Cannadine and Sir Joseph Pilling, former Permanent Secretary at the Northern Ireland Office.

People hoping for a speedy revelation of secrets from the mid-1990s will be disappointed by the report.

But relaxation of the rules would mean that papers from the early 1980s, covering certain decisions made by the Thatcher government during the Falklands War and the miners strike, would be released earlier than would have been the case.

1979 (Tory victory) - 2010
1982 (Falklands war) - 2011
1990 (Thatcher resigns) - 2015
1997 (Labour victory) - 2019
2003 (Iraq war) - 2022

In reaching its recommendations, the panel agreed attitudes towards the amount of accountability and openness expected in public life had changed dramatically since the 1960s.

Mr Dacre said the UK had one of the "less liberal" systems for publishing official documents in Europe and any "unnecessary secrecy" risked increasing cynicism about government.

However, the panel also concluded the "anonymity" of senior civil servants must be protected to enable them to do their jobs - and said that if records of decisions were published less than 15 years after being taken ministers might have to "refight old battles" while still in government.

The panel also recommends that rules governing the publication of sensitive information by ministers and their advisers in diaries soon after they have left office be reviewed.

Restrictions on what could be disclosed - put in place after details of Cabinet meetings were included in Richard Crossman's diaries published in 1975 - had been "increasingly flouted" in recent years, the panel concluded.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw welcomed the report but did not commit to the 15-year time limit.

"The government will respond to its recommendations in due course but agrees that there should be a substantial reduction in the period after which official papers should generally be released to the public," he said.

Key decisions

The Public Records Act 1958 introduced the right of access to government records with a 50-year rule, which was reduced to 30 years in 1967.

Papers are released 30 years after the date of the last document or record, plus one extra year. Papers for 1978 became available at the start of 2009
Departments can request information to be withheld if it is thought to threaten national security or contain distressing personal details
Decision on publication is taken by the Lord Chancellor after consultation with a committee of MPs, Judges and academics

At present, some papers are released sooner than 30 years as a result of Freedom of Information requests - which gives people the right to see information held by a public body - while a few are kept private for longer.

But information which potentially threatens national security, or which contains distressing personal details, can still be kept secret for longer as long as it is exempt from the FOI act.

Decisions on what information can be retained are made by the Lord Chancellor following consultation with a committee of judges, MPs, academics and archevists.

Freedom of Information campaigners called for a reduction in the time limit to 15 years, arguing that the introduction of FOI laws had undermined the principle of the 30-year rule.

The Lib Dems said the conclusions of the review were a "welcome step in the fight for further transparency" in how government should be conducted.

"The Lib Dems have always believed that information should be as free as possible and that the people have a right to know what their government is doing," said its leader Nick Clegg.

The latest papers to be released under the 30-year rule, at the end of last year, covered events in 1978.

Print Sponsor

UK secrecy laws facing shake-up
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