June 10, 2009 / 5:55 PM / 10 years ago

UK to cut official document release to 20 years

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Secret documents from the days of Margaret Thatcher’s government could emerge sooner than expected after Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced on Wednesday a cut in the time taken to release official papers.

Then Irish Prime Minister Garret Fitzgerald and then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher exchange documents after signing an Anglo-Irish agreement at Hillsborough House on November 15, 1985. Reuters/Rob Taggart

He said the existing 30-year rule on the publication of state documents would be reduced to 20 years following a review chaired by Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail.

Historian Hugh Pemberton welcomed the decision, but warned that a rush of extra documents could swamp civil servants tasked with selecting important papers for the public archives.

The Dacre review, which had recommended a cut to 15 years, proposed that government departments should phase in the reduction by releasing two years of documents each year until they caught up.

“That is fine if that is resourced properly,” said Pemberton, a history lecturer at Bristol University.

“The danger is if you just say to the existing staff you’ve got to do twice as much work, that creates an incentive to destroy records,” he said.

Pemberton, who is researching British pension policy, said he was keen to read advice given to ministers in Thatcher’s Conservative cabinet in the early 1980s, when it was decided to break the link between the state pension and average earnings.

Nottingham University professor John Young said many historians were concerned there could be a loss in the accuracy of official records if civil servants thought their notes could be read later in their career.

Young gave evidence to the Dacre review on behalf of the 200-strong British International History Group and opposed the reduction in the release time.

“Our fear was it might lead officials to be circumspect in what they write down, knowing that historians will see it in 20 years rather than 30.

“As serious historians looking to the future our concern was for the quality of the record left behind. We work often on Foreign Office files and we want the real reasons why decisions were taken.”

Freedom of information laws introduced in 2005 now allow the public to ask to see official documents from any date, but Pemberton said civil servants were still reluctant to release papers containing advice to ministers.

Editing by Paul Casciato

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