The length of time government records are kept secret should be cut from 30 to 15 years, a review panel said today.
The recommendation by an independent team of experts appointed by prime minister Gordon Brown would bring forward the publication of key documents from Margaret Thatcher and John Major’s time in power.
This would include papers relating to the 1982 Falklands War and the 1984 miners’ strike.
The panel, chaired by Daily Mail editor-in-chief Paul Dacre, recommended changing legislation to reform the current “30-year rule”.
The move should be implemented by making public an extra year’s records in the annual release of government documents, they said.
There was no right of access to government records until the Public Records Act 1958 introduced a 50-year rule. This was reduced to 30 years in 1967.
The other members of the panel were historian Professor Sir David Cannadine and Sir Joseph Pilling, former permanent secretary at the Northern Ireland Office.
The Government will now decide whether to act on their recommendations.
Dacre said the perception of secrecy in government was breeding “public cynicism” and expressed a hope that the reforms would result in a “more mature democracy”.
In a foreword to the review’s report, he wrote: “If there has been a corrosion of that trust between politicians and people over the past few years – and my belief is that there has been – our recommendations might in the longer term go a little way to restoring it.”
Dacre also criticised the growing number of memoirs rushed into print by politicians, civil servants and special advisers as “invariably self-serving”.
These accounts possess their own fascination but need to be counterbalanced by a “dispassionate and true version of events”, he said.
The review looks in particular at the impact of the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act in 2005, which gave the public much greater access to official documents from public bodies.
Dacre said this was a “seismic change” in the UK’s approach to openness in public life, but noted it had been implemented in a “somewhat unsatisfactory, patchwork fashion”.
He said: “From an international perspective, the UK now operates one of the less liberal access regimes to official records.”
The panel also made a number of other recommendations, including:
- The Government should consider amending the Civil Service Code to introduce an explicit requirement to keep full, accurate and impartial records;
- The use, where possible, of redaction of official documents when they are made public to protect the identities of civil servants;
- The Government should confirm that ministers’ special advisers are not exempt from the Public Records Act and the Freedom of Information Act and, as temporary civil servants, they have a duty to keep a full record of their work;
- The Government should commission an independent review of the Radcliffe rules regarding the publication of memoirs by former ministers, civil servants and special advisers;
- The Government should urgently review its strategy for preserving digital records.
Justice secretary Jack Straw said the Government welcomed the report and would respond to the recommendations in due course.
He said ministers agreed there should be a “substantial reduction” in the period after which official documents should be made public.
Dacre’s recommendations were welcomed today by Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information.
“A 15-year rule would mean records becoming available while we can still remember the events they refer to. For most people what happened 30 years ago is ancient history,” he said.
“Disclosure after 15 years would throw light on decisions while their impact is still remembered, their consequences still felt and the ministers and other participants likely to still be around and able to answer questions about their own role.”