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Ban on official papers is under review

THE Lord Chancellor is to carry out an urgent review of the controversial rules under which historically important papers are kept secret for up to 100 years.

The move could at last pave the way for the release of material denied the public and historians because it could cause political or personal embarrassment.

First World War courts martial for cowardice, the Invergordon mutiny, the Suez crisis, German occupation of the Channel Islands, and the circumstances under which the Royal Family was freed from paying taxes, are just a few of the issues that historians have long complained are still shrouded in mystery because of bans on releasing documents.

William Waldegrave, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the minister responsible for the Citizen's Charter, has written, with the Prime Minister's approval, to Lord Mackay asking him to conduct a fast review of the rules in time for the results to be included in Mr Waldegrave's planned White Paper on open government at the turn of the year.

The review will deal specifically with papers that have been kept secret for more than 30 years. Confidential government documents are kept secret for 30 years, but under procedures defined in 1967 can be kept for much longer if Ministers so decide.

The present procedures lay down that papers can be withheld if they are 'exceptionally sensitive' and their disclosure would be 'contrary to the public interest on security or other grounds'; contain information supplied in confidence and where disclosure 'would or might constitute a breach of faith'; or they contain information about individuals 'which might cause distress or embarrassment to living persons or their immediate descendants'.

Historians and freedom of information campaigners have long complained that these categories are too restrictive and have prevented disclosure of important historical information.

Historians believe, for example, that papers on the Profumo scandal, which hit the Macmillan government in the summer of 1963, would, under current rules, remain undisclosed after the 30- year ban expires next year.

Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary will also have to decide shortly whether to release confidential papers on the hanging of Derek Bentley for the murder of a policeman in the 1950s when he decides the outcome of his review of the case. The Home Office has been considering new evidence that Bentley was wrongly hanged.

The Lord Chancellor has already agreed to a request from Mr Waldegrave to end the ruling under which all material from the Cabinet Joint Intelligence Committee remains indefinitely secret.

Labour, which supports a Freedom of Information Act, said last night the move did not go far enough. Brian Wilson, new front bench open government spokesman, said that to ask merely for the Lord Chancellor to undertake a review seemed like a 'negative way to proceed'. He suspected there was a danger that the rules would be 'updated' rather than dismantled. He said: 'If there is to be any change in practice the onus should be on the Government to demonstrate on a case- by- case basis why any particular file should not be opened.'