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
Life and Style
A monstrous idea? Body transplants might no longer be science fiction
Science An Italian neurosurgeon believes so - and it's not quite as implausible as it sounds, says Steve Connor
Demba Ba (right) celebrates after Besiktas win on penalties
footballThere was no happy return to the Ataturk Stadium, where the Reds famously won Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
arts + ents
Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
The write stuff: masters of story-telling James Joyce, left, and Thomas Hardy
arts + ents...begging to differ, John Walsh can't even begin to number the ways
Jose Mourinho on Sky Sports
footballEXCLUSIVE COLUMN Paul Scholes: It was not a leg-breaking tackle, as the Chelsea manager had claimed
2015 General Election

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

£23000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small, friendly, proactive...

Recruitment Genius: Photographic Event Crew

£14500 - £22800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developers - .NET / ASP.NET / WebAPI / JavaScript

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Software Developer is required to join a lea...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Solicitor - City

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A first rate opportunity to join a top ranking...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower