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

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

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
News
Details of the self-cleaning coating were published last night in the journal Science
science
News
Approved Food sell products past their sell-by dates at discounted prices
i100
News
Life-changing: Simone de Beauvoir in 1947, two years before she wrote 'The Second Sex', credited as the starting point of second wave feminism
peopleHer seminal feminist polemic, The Second Sex, has been published in short-form to mark International Women's Day
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager

£30000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This organisation based in Pea...

Recruitment Genius: Administrator / Warehouse Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This fast-paced award winning company based in...

Recruitment Genius: General Manager

£50000 - £70000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This provider of global logisti...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Manager - £70,000 OTE

£35000 - £70000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Manager (Vice President...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable