Freedom of Information campaigners have welcomed a Government decision to allow Cabinet papers to be made public after 20 years, rather than 30 as at present.
A review chaired by Daily Mail editor and Associated Newspapers editor-in-chief Paul Dacre recommended in January 2009 that all official documents should be released after 15 years.
But Prime Minister Gordon Brown indicated that he favoured a 20-year delay, and said that Cabinet papers and documents relating to communications with the Royal Family would be protected by an exemption from the new arrangements.
Yesterday, Justice Secretary Jack Straw published the Government’s final response to the Dacre Review, disclosing that ministers had dropped their objection to the early release of material relating to Cabinet meetings.
“The Government believes that there are arguments on both sides and that the importance attached to the principle of openness means that greater protection should only be introduced if it is essential to maintaining the constitutional position of collective responsibility,” said the Ministry of Justice response.
“Having considered the arguments, on balance the Government does not consider such enhanced protection to be necessary as a result of the reduction to 20 years.”
Information relating to communications with the monarch, heir and second-in-line to the throne will be kept secret for 20 years or five years after the individual royal’s death, whichever is the later. Papers relating to lower-ranking members of the royal family could be released much earlier, depending on the balance of the public interest.
The new 20-year rule will be phased in over 10 years by doubling the volume of old Government records released each year.
Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, welcomed the decision.
The proposed exemptions, he said, would have protected Cabinet papers against all applications under the Freedom of Information Act.
Ministers will retain their current power to veto a decision by the Information Commissioner or Tribunal requiring the release of Cabinet papers. The veto has already been used in two cases.
Mr Frankel said: “We are extremely pleased that the Prime Minister has decided to drop the proposed Cabinet exemption.
“That would have ruled out the release of any paper circulated to Cabinet or a cabinet committee, even if there would be no harm to decision-making or collective responsibility.
“Requests for such documents will now continue to be considered on their merits. Cabinet minutes may be unlikely to emerge, given the way the ministerial veto has been used so far, though that too is not entirely out of the question, particularly for older or less contentious material or where the public interest in disclosure is overwhelming.
“And the 20-year rule will mean old records are more likely to emerge while the events they refer to are still remembered.”
The campaign said it regretted the proposed change to the way royal documents were handled, and believed the public interest test should continue to apply to such matters.