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Government Records: 30-year Rule

Volume 718: debated on Tuesday 9 March 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the recommendations in Review of the 30 Year Rule, chaired by Paul Dacre and published in January 2009.

My Lords, the Government published their response to Review of the 30 Year Rule to Parliament and the general public on 25 February 2010. A copy of the response is available in the Library of the House. The Government also tabled an amendment to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill on the same day to bring forward the legislation necessary to implement the change to the 30-year rule and other key proposals set out in the response.

My Lords, I greatly welcome the Government’s response, both in their paper and in securing amendments that we hope will survive any wash-up and become law. My concern is whether the Government, having willed the end, have also willed the means. The Dacre report, as the Minister will know, recommended that the Government should make adequate additional provision in the 2011 to 2014 period and subsequent Comprehensive Spending Reviews for all records-related activities in the way that was spelled out. As I understand it—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—the Government have rejected the notion of any additional resources. Will that not undermine the whole operation?

My Lords, first things first. I am grateful to the noble Lord for his support. This is in a Bill that is to come before this House in a couple of weeks’ time and then we will see what happens to it. I have no doubt that all its parts will be widely accepted around the House—certainly this part will. As to the future, we will see. We have made an impact assessment, which estimates a total cost of between £50 million and £80 million over a 10-year transition period. We shall work with central government and the wider archive sector to ensure that transition to the new rule can be achieved in the most cost-effective manner.

The noble Lord is being somewhat coy. He said that the Bill will come before the House in a couple of weeks’ time; I think that it comes before the House on 24 March for its Second Reading. When does the noble Lord think that it will reach Committee stage, when we can debate this matter in greater detail?

The noble Lord asks a most interesting question. I hope that we will move to Committee stage pretty quickly.

My Lords, to get back to the Question asked, is it not the case that the 30-year rule is now impossible to defend because it is routinely bypassed or ignored in prime ministerial, ministerial and Civil Service memoirs, which are frequently self-serving and highly remunerated? Is not the rule now simply an obstacle to serious historical scholarship? Does it not run counter to the Government’s otherwise admirable policy on the freedom of information?

My Lords, we hope to get rid of the 30-year rule and to make it a 20-year rule, which will make a difference. It will result in increased transparency and accountability in government by allowing the public automatically to access and scrutinise large numbers of important historical documents a good deal earlier. My noble friend’s question relates really to the Radcliffe rules and the issue of ministerial and civil servant memoirs. These have been the subject of two recent reviews and we do not believe that a full independent review is necessary. However, the Cabinet Office will revisit the Radcliffe rules in light of the comments in the 30-year rule review.

My Lords, in the spirit of openness that has led to the proposed change from a 30-year rule to a 20-year rule, will the Government look at those categories of exempt information for which there is not even a 100-year rule, let alone a 30-year rule, including defence, international relations, the economy, health and safety? Would government Ministers be prepared to consider even a 100-year rule for these? What justification is there for an indefinite application of the exemption? Are the Government afraid that information from 1910 might jeopardise our relationship with Germany? I can assure him that on these Benches a full disclosure of the economic stewardship of David Lloyd George would be very welcome.

My Lords, the noble Lord makes it sound very easy, but it is not as easy as that. We have removed a number of exemptions and some exemptions that were absolute are now qualified. The absolute exemptions that still remain cover information provided by what is called a Section 23 body, such as the security agencies, the Special Forces and the serious organised crime agencies. In relation to national security, there is no time limit but a qualified exemption so that information can be got out if that is in the public interest. Information whose disclosure would prejudice our international relations is, again, qualified, while information that would be prejudicial to the prevention and detection of crime and the administration of justice—the category subject to the 100-year rule—is also qualified.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is to be congratulated on an exception in the other direction—namely, the publication last year of a remarkable set of documents on German reunification, which I commend to the House?

I am always happy to congratulate the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at this Dispatch Box and I do so gladly.

My Lords, what is the justification for the 100-year disclosure rule on the Dunblane inquiry papers?

I am afraid that I am not in a position to tell the noble Lord that. I will find out the reason, write to him and put a copy in the Library.