A New Year ritual that will be missed

With the coming into force of the Freedom of Information Act today, an honoured tradition will pass into history. The so-called 30- and 50-year rules, which allowed for the opening of official papers held at the National Archives, will no longer apply. From now on, there will be no standard period for which official documents are kept closed. The new law provides that official papers will be presumed to be open unless their contents fall within certain defined categories. Content, not time, will henceforth determine confidentiality.

The documents we report today, relating to 1974, are thus the last to be released under the old rules - and a vintage crop they are. We learn for the first time of a near-crisis precipitated by the gift of a pair of Chinese pandas to the former prime minister, Edward Heath. It turns out that their diet of bamboo shoots and expensive new enclosure threatened to bankrupt London Zoo. Keen not to offend China - what's new? - the Foreign Office offered the zoo scant sympathy, noting that the arrival of the pandas had sharply increased the number of visitors, whereas "pre-pandas, attendance was 30 per cent down".

We learn, too, of a Northern Ireland peace initiative proposed by the Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin, who felt that Uganda's status as a former colony, and the decent distance between it and Ulster, made him the ideal mediator. The British High Commissioner in Kampala advised that the offer was well-intended and among Amin's "more lucid" contributions; he was instructed by London to reject the initiative with due courtesy.

On a more serious - and instructive - note, we learn that, as home secretary, Roy Jenkins, advised the prime minister of the day, Harold Wilson, against introducing ID cards. Immediately after the Birmingham pub bombings, he warned against responding to terrorism with ever more repressive legislation that entailed "unwarranted infringement of personal liberty", and dismissed ID cards as likely to be "extremely expensive and largely ineffective". A copy of his advice should be sent, recorded delivery, to the new Home Secretary for his edification.

We have yet to discover how the Freedom of Information Act will work. Even as we nurture hopes of a new, more open age, we nonetheless fear that the bureaucratic instinct for secrecy will too often prevail. While our national archivists will still trawl official records and publish what they judge to be of historical value, newsworthy, or quirkily entertaining, the annual ritual of disclosure is no more. It will be missed.

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