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UK Politics

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.”