Officials to open highly classified Whitehall papers which could shed light on child abuse

Exclusive: Documents held in the archive included those deemed 'too hot to handle'

Government officials are examining a secret stash of highly classified documents which could shed new light on some of the most controversial episodes of British political life over the last 50 years.

The “uncatalogued and unregistered” papers, which run to tens of thousands of pages, contain the private records and files of cabinet secretaries from the 1950s until 2007 and have been locked away for decades in a Whitehall store.

Documents held in the unofficial archive included those that civil servants did not wish ever to be divulged because they were “too hot to handle”, experts told The Independent. Many were so sensitive that they were never even shown to ministers.

They should have been catalogued and handed over to the National Archives years ago but were instead withheld and kept under lock and key in the Cabinet Office where they remain to this day. Such is the scale and sensitivity of the records that a team of civil servants has been given until 2020 to catalogue the files and assess whether the material can be published.

But campaigners are now urging ministers to fast-track the publication process, after it emerged that the documents contain reference to allegations and intelligence against high-profile establishment figures suspected of paedophilia in the 1980s.

A urgent search of the files, ordered by ministers in the wake of the controversy into the handling of historical abuse allegations, found reference to intelligence on a string of politicians and high-ranking officials including the cabinet minister Leon Brittan.

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Leon Brittan, who has been named in top secret files uncovered following a review into historical child sex abuse in Westminster

They include a letter from the former MI5 Director General Sir Antony Duff to the then Cabinet Secretary Sir Robert Armstrong in 1986 over claims made by two sources about an MP who had a “penchant for small boys”.

These files have now been passed to the historical abuse inquiry, led by the High Court judge Lowell Goddard, as well as the Metropolitan Police Service.

But senior Whitehall sources with knowledge of the documents, known as the “cabinet secretaries’ file” told The Independent that they also contained letters, papers and memos on other issues and controversies that were considered to be too sensitive to be catalogued.

One described them as the Civil Service’s “black book” – with information from the security services that was sent to the Cabinet Secretary on the political and personal affairs of MPs and politicians.

In particular the files are understood to contain detailed records relating to the Profumo scandal. They are also likely to include assessments of the security risks posed by government ministers during the Cold War that was regularly collected by MI5.

Such information would almost certainly not have been shared by the Government of the day – just retained by their senior civil servants.

“My understanding is that they contain the ultra-sensitive stuff that was too hot to handle at the time,” said the Whitehall historian Professor Peter Hennessy. “A lot of it is really cluttered and until recently nobody really had any idea what was there.”

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Window box above Whitehall and Downing Street junction

One former senior civil servant said he had been aware of the archive during his time in Whitehall.

“There was a set of old documents on Profumo and things like that. I think it was considered just too sensitive to be released [to the National Archive]. There are some documents that previous incumbents had stuck down in the basement almost.

“I think Jeremy [Heywood, the current Cabinet Secretary] carried out a review in order to regularise the whole thing.”

In a letter, released by the Government on the night of 20 July, the Permanent Secretary for the Cabinet Office, Richard Heaton, apologised that it had taken so long for officials to find the documents relating to historical abuse allegations in the material.

“There was a flaw in the way in which the Cabinet Office initially responded to the call for a search of departmental papers,” he said. “A group of papers was found in a Cabinet Office store of assorted and unstructured papers.

“This collection has accumulated over several decades and was closed in 2007.

“It was largely uncatalogued and unregistered. We have been aware for some time that this is an unsatisfactory position.”

He added that the process of reviewing the papers had begun in 2014 but added this was not likely to be completed for several years. “But we are now accelerating that work.”

Child abuse campaigners called for urgent publication. Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC, and the barrister Richard Whittam, who together published an official review into whether allegations of child abuse were covered up by the Home Office in the 1980s, said the discovery of the documents “illustrates the merit of a broader search of potentially relevant material both on and off the system”.

Speaking about the discovery of the files, the Home Secretary Theresa May said: “The reason I set up the Goddard inquiry is precisely because we need to get to the heart of what was happening in the past and what has been happening more recently, as we’ve seen for example in Rotherham”.

The Prime Minister David Cameron said if anyone had any information about “these terrible crimes against children and young people” they should go straight to the police.”

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: "Since we published the first set of papers from the archive colloquially known as the Cabinet Secretaries' file in 2013, we have been working hard to review the rest of the collection for publication. We expect to have another tranche ready for publication by the end of the year."