Foreign Office under fire for not releasing historic secret files fast enough

The slim civil service diary scrawled with a number of lunch and dinner engagements is at first glance of little interest. It is only when the name “Donald Maclean” and the year “1951” are noticed that its significance becomes clear.

For the last 60 or so years this totem of the Cold War and the defection of a member of Britain’s most notorious Soviet spy ring has been kept in the depths of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office archive, currently housed behind barbed wire in a high-security compound shared with MI5 and MI6 in the Buckinghamshire countryside.

The diary was one of a handful of items that have been presented to the media as part of an effort by the FCO to prove that a vast archive of at least 600,000 documents withheld from disclosure for decades is finally being assessed for public release.

In a rare glimpse behind the doors of official secrecy, The Independent was invited to the Hanslope Park facility near Milton Keynes to see the archive where documentation which has the potential to overhaul understanding of aspects of British history from the slave trade to the Cold War was stored in apparent contravention of disclosure laws until the first of a series of special dispensations was granted by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling two years ago.

The first tranche of 60,000 files from the so-called “Special Collection”, described by officials as “an inherited problem”, is now due for release within the next five years after the FCO agreed to boost the number ex-diplomats it employs at the site to sift through the files and weed out material which even now must remain a state secret.

Until very recently, that description applied to the 1951 diary of Donald Maclean, one of the of items collected from his Whitehall Foreign Office desk by investigators after he left work on 25 May that year and escaped across the English Channel en route to Moscow with fellow Cambridge spy Guy Burgess in one of the most infamous failures of British postwar espionage.

The Stationery Office diary is part of an expansive archive relating to Burgess and Maclean which today fills 10 document boxes and six lever-arch files on one of dozens of rows of movable shelving in the nondescript building at the heart of the Hanslope Park complex which houses the Special Collection.

Officials said they expected to begin work on the Burgess/Maclean files, once held in a special ultra-high security section of the FCO, in the coming weeks ahead of an eventual release to the National Archives in Kew, west London; albeit with the caveat that they were likely to be heavily redacted “for obvious reasons”.

Nonetheless, the diary offered an intriguing snapshot of the new light that the documents will eventually cast on historic events. An entry a month before Maclean disappeared shows he had a meeting scheduled with a “J Cairncross”, a potential reference to John Cairncross, the Soviet double agent who was later identified as the “fifth man” of the Cambridge ring but always denied knowing its other members.

Despite an undertaking from ministers that the FCO is now treating the Special Collection with “maximum transparency”, the department continues to face considerable scepticism that it is deploying sufficient resources to process the vast number of files - each of which must be read by a retired diplomat “sensitivity reviewer” before it can be passed to Kew - within an acceptable timeframe. The number of reviewers has recently been increased from 26 to 38 to meet the five-year deadline for the release of the 60,000 “high priority” files.

Suspicion of continuing foot-dragging is not assuaged by the fact that the existence of the files only came about after the FCO was forced to admit in 2011 that it had withheld 1,500 files from a separate “Migrated Archive” about colonial Kenya during a High Court action brought on behalf of victims of torture suffered during the 1950s Mau Mau insurgency. The disclosure led to a £20 million settlement of the case.

Professor Tony Badger, master of Clare College at Cambridge University, who has been appointed to act as an independent reviewer of the collection, said he understood the concern of fellow historians but believed a genuine effort was being made to rectify previous mistakes.

He said: “It is clear that there was an intention with the Migrated Archive to not let people know. But [the Special Collection] situation is much more accidental. Whether we can speed up this process is one thing that can be worked upon.”

Officials said that the process was being approached methodically and faces obstacles ranging from property deeds in Mandarin Chinese to records held in formats, such as certain types of microfiche, for which the reading machines no longer exist. But a chastened FCO said its desire is to disclose as much material as possible, adding that less one per cent of the documentation it sends to the National Archives is redacted.

Among the first tranches of documentation likely to be sent for public disclosure will be files of British victims of the Holocaust and Nazi persecution who applied to a postwar compensation scheme.

Some historians, however, remain unconvinced and are continuing to consider seeking a judicial review of the failure of the FCO to disclose the existence of the Special Collection and force a more rapid disclosure. David Anderson, professor of African history at the University of Warwick, said: “They are thwarted by a lack of resources. The current situation is being ‘managed’ but it is a total shambles. There is no way that the Foreign Office can match their commitments to do everything they are supposed to do by law.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
2015 General Election
May2015

Poll of Polls

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

Ashdown Group: Account Payable Assistant - SW London

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Account Payable Assistant - SW Londo...

Recruitment Genius: Bathroom Showroom Customer Service / Sales Assistant

£14560 - £17680 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Even though their premises have...

Recruitment Genius: Finance Manager

£44000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Marketing company based in cent...

Recruitment Genius: IT Installation / Commissioning Engineer - North West

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An IT Installation / Commission...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence