UK to cut official document release to 20 years

Wed Jun 10, 2009 2:16pm EDT
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By Tim Castle

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.

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.   Continued...

<p>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</p>