Leading article: A timely challenge to the culture of official secrecy

Thirty years is too long to wait for the release of confidential documents
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The Independent Online

It is one of the curious features of British public life that those whom the system supposedly serves, the taxpaying public, are often only allowed to peek behind the curtain of power under sufferance. The annual trawl by news organisations through the confidential documents released by the National Archives usually produces some enlightening stories about our political masters. But the three-decade waiting time reduces the public to the status of day visitors to some grand country house from which the noble family has long since moved on.

An excellent Government-commissioned review which recommended yesterday that the waiting period for the release of such documents be halved would go some way towards putting the relationship between the governed and the governors on a more democratic footing.

Perhaps the weakest justification for a 30-year waiting period is the supposed necessity of saving those in power from embarrassment. The period was settled upon, in part, on the basis that the protagonists would probably be deceased, or at the very least have left power, by the time such records reached the public domain.

Yet while it is easy to see how saving the great and the good from embarrassment might be in their personal interests, it is hard to see how it is in the public's interest. Indeed, if prominent civil servants and elected politicians knew their various mistakes and miscalculations would reach a broad audience in their lifetimes, it is not fanciful to imagine that it might improve their performance.

There is another strong argument for early disclosure which the review rightly identifies. In an era when prominent politicians and officials are increasingly likely to publish their memoirs within a few years of leaving office, it would be useful to examine, within a more reasonable timescale, if their recollections fit the official record.

A more convincing justification for a lengthy disclosure period is that governments and civil servants need some degree of confidentiality surrounding their deliberations if they are to function effectively. There is something in this. Immediate disclosure of all official records would prevent ministers and civil servants holding honest discussions when determining policy. Obviously, there needs to some delay. Nevertheless there is a strong case for a more rapid disclosure of official records than exists at present. Fifteen years provides ample time and space for ministers and officials.

It is important to remember the wider context too. There is less transparency surrounding government business in Britain than there is in several of our democratic peer countries. And our leaders seem to want to squeeze the minimal rights to access official documents that we do enjoy.

Four years ago, the Freedom of Information Act came into effect and was hailed by ministers as the beginning of a new age of openness. But these same ministers have been busy ever since exploring ways to undermine the Act. Only last week the Prime Minister was proposing to exempt details of MPs' expenses from disclosure under the Act. In such an environment, the recommendations of this review are to be grasped with both hands.

The more shielded from public scrutiny our ruling classes feel themselves to be, the worse their decisions on our behalf are likely to prove. And the more extensive our ability to analyse their performance in a timely fashion, the healthier our democracy will be.

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