This is a guest post by Martin Bright
The 30-year-rule is dead in the water and has been for some time. The combined effect of the Freedom of Information Act and an increasing willingness on the part of government departments to release historically significant documents has left this arbitrary measure looking increasingly absurd in the digital age.
The findings of the Dacre committee, which has suggested cutting the 30-year-rule in half, are welcome, as is the positive response of the government. But to an extent this is to miss the point about the nature of official secrecy.
The reform still accepts the principle that civil servants working in the present can second guess what will turn out to be sensitive in the future. The natural instinct is to be over cautious and this tendency may well increase with the knowledge that documents could become public in little more than a decade.
What most people probably don’t realise is that it is already possible to get the National Archive to release documents under the 30-year-rule, or that some documents are sealed for 50 or even 100 years.
When I was researching the aristocratic Nazi sympathiser Unity Mitford, I discovered a file that officials had deemed fit to keep secret for a century. I applied to the Home Office to release it and when they agreed I assumed the contents would be explosive. They simply revealed that Miss Mitford had had an affair with an RAF test pilot.
This experience made me realise that the fetish for secrecy in Britain is largely counterproductive.
The Freedom of Information Act was supposed to challenge the traditional assumption that anything official should remain secret unless someone could show that disclosure was in the public interest.
The idea was that ministers would proceed in a more transparent atmosphere under the assumption that most of what they said and did would be made public. But old habits die hard. Much government business now takes place verbally with officials loathe to put anything down on paper or in emails.
Anything which puts official documents on the public record more quickly has to be welcome to anyone interested in writing the history of the recent past.
But it strikes me as particularly cynical of Justice Minister Jack Straw to welcome a measure which will shine a light on the Thatcher and Major governments and defer scrutiny of the New Labour years.