'30-year rule' on secret records should be halved, says inquiry

Earlier release of documents to the public 'would result in better governance'
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The Independent Online

The length of time confidential government records remain secret should be halved to 15 years as part of a wide-ranging overhaul of the rules that control the release of sensitive official information to the public, an independent inquiry ruled yesterday.

The recommendation, from a review panel headed by Daily Mail editor-in-chief Paul Dacre, would see the earlier publication of records on key events from the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major such as the Falklands War, the miners' strike, and the process that led to the Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland. Such documents are currently kept secret for 30 years after they are written.

In proposals which Mr Dacre said would result in "better governance", the inquiry also called for a tightening of rules to deal with an increasing number of "self-serving" memoirs written by politicians, civil servants and special advisers.

The panel said partial autobiographies need to be counter-balanced by official records offering a dispassionate view of major political upheavals. This was seen as suggesting the Radcliffe rules – guidelines setting out what a former minister or public servant can reveal in a memoir – are "increasingly flouted" and not being effectively enforced. Prominent memoirs of recent years have included Alastair Campbell's account of life at the side of Tony Blair, and Lord Levy's account of his involvement in the cash-for-questions investigation.

The 30-year rule was introduced in 1968 by Harold Wilson after he reduced the minimum period of secrecy from 50 years.

Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, yesterday promised a "substantial reduction" in the period official papers should be retained, although he stopped short of embracing the 15-year recommendation.

Mr Dacre, who chaired the review with the historian Sir David Cannadine and civil servant Sir Joseph Pilling, former permanent secretary at the Northern Ireland Office, said the Freedom of Information Act, which allows the public to request disclosure of any public document subject to a set of restrictions, is being applied in an "unsatisfactory and patchwork" manner and Britain now operates "one of the less liberal" regimens for accessing government records.

Earlier this week, ministers lost an appeal against a ruling under the FOI Act by the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, that they must publish the minutes of two cabinet meetings in 2003 that committed Britain to war in the days before the Iraq invasion.

The introduction of a 15-year rule would not signal an information free-for-all. Rules allowing officials to keep papers secret on grounds of national security or public interest would remain in place, although the review panel said several of its witnesses had expressed interest in being able to defend their actions "while still alive".

If the proposals are accepted by Mr Straw, the release of documents from the past 30 years will be accelerated by releasing 24 months of papers at a time, compared with the current practice of a year at a time. Under the new timetable, records from 1979 and 1980 – the first two years of Mrs Thatcher's decade in power – would be released next year.

Secret files: What we will know and when

1982: The Falklands War

Documents covering the decision to sink the General Belgrano battleship and secret British efforts to stop the supply of Exocet missiles used to attack Royal Navy vessels. Release date originally 2012, now 2011.

1984: Miners' strike

Cabinet minutes on discussions about whether miners led by Arthur Scargill would win the industrial dispute. Release date originally 2014, now 2012.

1986: Michael Heseltine's resignation over the Westland affair

Cabinet minutes will reveal what Mr Heseltine said moments before emerging on the steps of No 10 to reveal that he had resigned. Release date originally 2016, now 2013.

1990: The resignation of Margaret Thatcher

Documents covering Mrs Thatcher's decision to leave Downing Street and her consultation with fellow ministers. Release date originally 2020, now 2015.

1991: First Gulf War

Cabinet minutes on the decision to go to war. Release date originally 2021, now 2016.