The government’s announcement that it has dropped its proposal to exempt cabinet papers from the Freedom of Information Act, and that it will reduce the 30 year rule to 20 years, was welcomed by the Campaign for Freedom of Information today.
The changes follow a review of the 30 year rule by a committee chaired by Paul Dacre, managing editor of Associated News, and set up by the prime minister. In response to the review’s recommendations, the government announced that old government records would be publicly available in The National Archives after 20 years, instead of the current 30 years (though the review had called for 15-year period). But it also said it would create two new absolute exemptions to the FOI Act, one for cabinet papers and the other for the Royal Family. In neither case would the Act’s public interest test apply.
But today the government announced that it had decided that a new exemption for cabinet papers was not necessary. The 20 year period for releasing old files will be introduced. A new exemption for the Royal Family will be created.
The Campaign’s director Maurice Frankel said:
“We are extremely pleased that the prime minister has decided to drop the proposed cabinet exemption. That would have ruled out the release of any paper circulated to cabinet or a cabinet committee, even if there would be no harm to decision-making or collective responsibility. Requests for such documents will now continue to be considered on their merits. Cabinet minutes may be unlikely to emerge, given the way the ministerial veto has been used so far, though that too is not entirely out of the question, particularly for older or less contentious material or where the public interest in disclosure is overwhelming. And the 20 year rule will mean old records are more likely to emerge while the events they refer to are still remembered.”
The Campaign pointed out that cabinet or cabinet committee papers were protected by existing FOI exemptions for policy formulation and ministerial communications, subject to the Act’s public interest test. The government also has the power to veto decisions of the Information Commissioner or Tribunal. The veto has been used twice to date, blocking the release of cabinet minutes about the war in Iraq and cabinet committee minutes on devolution. However, the veto is judicially reviewable, which provides some safeguard against its casual use.
The new 20 year rule will be phased in over 10 years by doubling the volume of old government records released each year.
However, a new absolute exemption, which will protect information about the monarch, the heir and second in line to the throne for 20 years and then, if the individual concerned is still alive, until 5 years after their death. This exemption will not be subject to the Act’s public interest test. The Campaign said it regretted this change, and believed the public interest test should continue to apply to such matters.
For other members of the Royal Family, an exemption will apply for the same length of time but will be subject to the public interest test.
The government’s announcement is at: http://www.justice.gov.uk/about/docs/government-response-30-year-rule-review.pdf
The Government’s outline response to the Dacre report is set out in Gordon Brown’s ‘statement on constitutional renewal’ of 10.6.09 http://www.number10.gov.uk/Page19579
The Dacre report can be found at: http://www2.nationalarchives.gov.uk/30yrr/30-year-rule-report.pdf
Maurice Frankel or Katherine Gundersen 020 7490 3958