The National Archives website has confirmed that the long-standing 30 year rule for the release of official documents will be reduced to a new 20 year rule from 2013 onwards. From 2013, two years worth of documents will be released each year, until the ‘backlog’ is cleared by 2023.
The change follows a review of the 30 year rule that I covered way back in 2009. We can look forward to important documents being released on key events in history, much sooner after they actually happened – it should be a real bonus for historians and researchers.
Some of the records that we should get to see early in the next few years include Northern Ireland in the 1980’s, the miners strike, Lockerbie, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, the first Gulf War.
Traditionally the 30 year rule had given protection to politicians and civil servants, that there actions would not be scrutinised too closely in the immediate aftermath of events. Of course, there is a fine balancing act between confidentiality on the one hand, and transparency and probity on the other.
One restrictive rule that is still in place is the 100 year rule for the release of census information. However, the 1911 census was released a couple of years early in 2009, and there is a Freedom of Information appeal ongoing for the wartime ‘mini-census’ to be released early.
I would also like to see a radical shift from the shortsighted British practice of charging for access to records, compared to countries such as Canada and Australia who make many documents available online for free. It stifles historic research to a degree that the mandarins and accountants could never understand.