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The Independent Culture


The Keeper of Public Records answers criticisms of government secrecy in a leading article

YOUR LEADER draws attention to recent releases of records at the Public Record Office, but it goes on to suggest that much remains hidden. Two points are helpful here. First, the great majority of public records are released when they become 30 years old. Secondly, more than 85,000 documents have been released since the Open Government Initiative was launched in 1992. These records were either less than 30 years old or they had previously been judged too sensitive for release.

We are, of course, pleased that the media have found recent releases of interest, but the stories over the past few months have not reflected the full range of records now becoming available. The release of records is a collective effort involving staff across government: the records are ultimately seen at the PRO, but it is for each department to identify material for early release.

But the process is not left to officials: it is overseen by the Advisory Council on Public Records, a statutory body whose members include representatives of the political parties and the research communities (see our website at www.pro.gov.uk/). The Council's approach to these matters is shaped by the criteria on access to public records in the 1993 White Paper on Open Government.

In the new White Paper Your Right to Know, this Government stated its wish that access rights to historic records should be modernised in line with its Freedom of Information proposals. It added that the 30-year rule - which is in line with international practice - would be kept. Releases in the last few months have shown that this does not prevent early access to records. Further releases are to follow - and that should be a cause for satisfaction.