HL Deb 28 January 1991 vol 525 cc445-7

Lord Carver asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why the 1960 Cabinet papers (CAB134/1936 and 937) relating to the Future Policy Study have not been released for access at the Public Record Office with other Cabinet papers of the same dates.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern)

My Lords, records may be retained or closed for periods longer than 30 years under appropriate sections of the Public Records Act 1958, as amended in 1967. It has been the practice of successive Administrations not to disclose the contents of such records or to comment in detail on the reasons for witholding them. I am, however, satisfied that the records referred to are properly withheld in accordance with the established criteria which were set out in paragraphs 24 to 31 of the 1982 White Paper, Modern Public Records (Cmnd. 8531).

Lord Carver

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for that not wholly unexpected Answer. Is he aware that these papers are of considerable interest to students of contemporary history? The preliminary papers—the 1959 papers—of this study were released on 1st January 1990, and the brief to the then Foreign Secretary on the final report, which summarises the whole report dated 15th March 1960, was released this year. Neither shows that any of the subjects for which papers are normally retained were included in the study. Will he therefore make arrangements to have the retention of the papers reconsidered? Will he further initiate a comprehensive review as to why so many papers are being retained beyond the 30-year limit for reasons which those who are interested in these matters think are of doubtful validity'?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, my understanding is that not all the papers relating to this project in 1959 were released in full last year. I understand that Cabinet Papers 134/1936 include papers covering the latter part of 1959. As to the other matters, what I have endeavoured to do is to apply faithfully the published criteria which were set out in the 1982 White Paper. Whether particular documents fall into these classes is necessarily a matter of judgment. However, I believe that that judgment is reasonably exercised. Of the documents which are selected for permanent preservation in the Public Record Office, no more than 2 per cent. are subject to extended closure. It is natural that attention is focused on the ones in respect of which extended closure is claimed, but I am informed that, in percentage terms, that is 2 per cent. of the total. It may be that the overall appreciation to which the noble and gallant Lord has referred is not entirely justified by a full examination of the facts.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, is my noble and learned friend satisfied that the criteria which he mentioned are observed with consistency by those who have to carry out the weeding of these documents as the 30-year point is being approached?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am assisted in this matter by a team of inspecting officers of the Public Record Office. They endeavour to perform these functions with the degree of consistency that one would expect of a comparatively small team.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord help us a little? Is it not quite understandable that the documents themselves to which these exchanges have referred should be the subject of agreement or disagreement as to whether they should or should not have been released? Is it not desirable that noble Lords who do not know anything about this subject should at least be told what the Question and Answer have been about?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, to answer that question requires me to remind your Lordships of the Question on the Order Paper. Noble Lords will see there what the Question is about. I believe that the Answer is reasonably related to that.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, without being quite so occult as the noble and learned Lord has just been, is it not a fact that the Future Policy Study was set up by Mr. Macmillan, as he then was, in order to see what the position of this country and indeed the world might be 10 years hence; namely, in 1970? In view of the fact that, if my summary is correct, that is what the Question is all about, is it not strange that any papers relating to such a matter should be the subject of security and so on in this year of grace? Does not the noble and learned Lord agree that a freedom of information Act is called for?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the question of whether a freedom of information Act would be helpful in such circumstances is rather different from the Question which appears on the Order Paper. The policy in relation to the application of existing legislation was set down in the 1982 White Paper. We seek to apply that consistently. The fact that a study was set up for a specific purpose does not necessarily mean that matters which were looked at in the course of the study may not fall under those criteria. I believe that has happened in this case.

Lord Teviot

My Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware that I served on his predecessor's advisory council for nine years some time ago? I agree with what he said but, in regard to the noble and gallant Lord's Question, will my noble and learned friend please further explain what are the particular criteria which apply? For example, can he say whether they are of a personal or political nature, or whatever? Such an explanation would be most helpful to the noble and gallant Lord and also to the House.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the criteria applying to Section 5(1) of the Act are: first, exceptionally sensitive papers the disclosure of which would be contrary to the public interest, whether on security or other grounds and including the need to safeguard the revenue. It will not be a surprise for noble Lords to learn that that consideration was relevant to these papers; secondly, documents containing information supplied in confidence, the disclosure of which would or might constitute a breach of good faith. I do not think that that particular criterion applied in the case of these documents. The third is, documents containing information about individuals, the disclosure of which would cause distress and embarrassment to living persons or their immediate descendants. That is a criterion which could well be important in this case.

I should perhaps point out that as soon as the noble and gallant Lord had tabled the Question I invited the relevant official from the Public Record Office to look again at these documents. It is in the light of the advice I received that I remain of the view that the criteria have been properly applied.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree that an unusual use—as many people would think—of these powers of withdrawal is all too likely to encourage the clamour for a freedom of information Act, with which I would wholly disagree? Does he further agree that, so long as the United States has a Freedom of Information Act and we are so restrictive about documents other than those concerning national security, it is all too likely that our recent history will be written from American and not British archives, which cannot do us much good?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the considerations to which my noble friend referred reinforce the need to apply the published criteria with care. That is what we seek to do. However, I remind him that I said that of the documents which are selected for permanent preservation in the Public Record Office, no more than about 2 per cent. are subjected to extended closure.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, why is it necessary to spare embarrassment to the descendants of the persons concerned when they are not spared such embarrassment in biographies?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, it may be that the public should have a higher standard in protecting people from unnecessary embarrassment than some biographers may have. At all events, that criterion is the one which I apply and which is set out in the White Paper. I must say that it seems to me to be a reasonable criterion.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Waddington)

My Lords, I am aware that the House is enjoying this Question, but 11 minutes have elapsed and perhaps we should move on.

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