Public records and secrecy

Mysterious document and sim card. Copyright: adactio
Mysterious document and sim card. Copyright: adactio

Most confidential papers are published by the National Archives after thirty years. An independent review into the Thirty Year Rule, which has been in place since 1967, chaired by the editor of the Daily Mail, Lord Dacre has recommended that this be changed to 15 years by releasing an additional year’s records each year from 2010.  However people who were hoping to read some interesting documents from the mid 1990s will be disappointed by the outcome of the panel’s reflections.  But  it does mean that papers from the early 1980s covering some decisions made by the Thatcher administration during the Falklands War and the miners’ strike will be released earlier that expected.

The panel agreed that nowadays the British population expected a greater degree of transparency in public life but that the anonymity of senior civil servants must be protected so that their work is not hampered by continual demands for information. If there is too much demand for openness, public servants can be tempted to keep a double set of records: one for publication and one for their own use.
When  Richard Crossman published his famous diaries in 1975 (acknowledged as the inspiration for the BBC comedy series ‘Yes Minister’) revealing the inner workings of government, some restrictions on what could be revealed were then put in place. However they have been ignored by a series of Cabinet ministers and public servants who wanted to put their side of the story to the public.  Alistair Campbell’s ‘The Blair Years’ and Lord Levy’s ‘A Question of Honour’   are probably the most recent offenders.
The Justice Secretary, Jack Straw has not committed himself to implementing the report : “The government will respond to its recommendations in due course but agrees that there should be a substantial reduction in the period after which official papers should be generally be released to the public”.
As a result of the Freedom of Information Act, some papers are released before the thirty year moratorium. Any information which could be danger to national security or has sensitive personal details is can be kept secret for longer because it is exempt from the FOI. 
The National Archives releases files on a continuous basis; among the more interesting items in the last six months are the UFO files. These contain all the reported sightings of UFOs between 1986-1992.
The more unusual  events include the near-collision of a passenger jet and a UFO in Kent and the shooting down of a UFO flying over East Anglian by pilots of the United States Air Force.
Sign up for the National Archives monthly enewsletter and find out about the latest releases of documents into the public domain.

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