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By Jones, Harriet | History Today, August 2000 | Go to article overview

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Jones, Harriet, History Today


Harriet Jones considers the impact of the new Freedom of Information Act on students of contemporary history.

WE SHALL FINALLY GAIN a statutory right to freedom of information in the United Kingdom this summer, when the Freedom of Information Act receives the nod from the Queen. Scotland, which is to have its own Act, will follow some time in the coming year. Contemporary historians are affected by the new legislation, because the Act will amend the Public Records Act 1958 and alter the present arrangements regarding the release of historical records. This might be a very good thing. But the success of the new statutory regime will depend largely upon the use that we as historians make of it, and there are some lingering grounds for concern.

The United Kingdom has lagged well behind the United States and many Commonwealth and European countries in its commitment to open government. Indeed Sweden has had a statutory right to freedom of information since the early nineteenth century although the rest only began to follow suit more than 150 years later. In Britain there has been pressure for more open government since the late 1960s. For historians, this was marked by the Public Records Act 1967, which lowered the barrier on releases from fifty to thirty years, and changed the pattern of historical scholarship. From that moment, contemporary history became feasible as a serious field of study in Britain.

Labour has been committed to freedom of information since 1974, and in 1979 the Callaghan Government published a Green Paper on Open Government, which proposed a non-statutory code rather than a freedom of information act. It was in response to this growing pressure that the head of the Civil Service, in a very British manner, conceded what would become known as the `Croham Directive' in 1977, promising to release more background information about ministerial decisions. Peter Hennessy, Professor of Contemporary History at Queen Mary and

Westfield College, London, relates that Jim Callaghan as premier very nearly gave us a Freedom of Information Act in 1979 when he promised Liberal MP Clement Freud that he could have one if he could make it back to London in time for the vital vote of confidence on the 28th of March. But Freud missed the train, the Government fell (by one vote), and Margaret Thatcher was having none of it.

Thatcher's refusal to discuss open government helped to galvanise the opposition: it was in 1984 that the Campaign for Freedom of Information was established. Its lobbying did not achieve much in the 1980s. But in the Major years open government came back onto the policy agenda. In 1993, the Government issued a White Paper which proposed a Code of Practice on Access to Government Information, along the lines of Callaghan's Green Paper. The Code was introduced in 1994. It was revised in 1997, and remains in effect today. These developments have had significant implications for contemporary historians in the past decade.

The 1993 White Paper was accompanied by me Waldegrave Initiative to review previously withheld records. The Institute of Contemporary British History helped to coordinate the response of the profession at that time, and as a result of those efforts something close to 100,000 documents were made available. Moreover, the White Paper gave a more active role to the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Council on Public Records in determining the extent to which Government Departments were cooperating in their obligations to release information after thirty years. The work of the Advisory Council, which consists of historians, journalists and other interested figures, has changed significantly since 1993. It is far more willing to challenge, follow up and engage in appeals on behalf of researchers than it used to be. The Lord Chancellor has always had the discretionary power to release documents in advance of the rule, and in the years since the Code was introduced these powers have also been applied more flexibly. …

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