Gordon Brown's announcement today about the package of reforms he wishes to bring in have a characteristic twist. Whenever he does something like this he is always looking for schemes and wheezes to slip in that he hopes will not garner much attention (until it is too late) and will yield some partisan advantage.
Wednesday, 10 June 2009
The one today vying for that honour is the announcement that the 30 year rule could be relaxed to 20 years. He mentioned specific exemptions for the Royal Family and cabinet papers. However I thought he had hedged this a bit when I heard it. This is what Hansard records that he said:
I should also announce that, as part of extending the availability of official information, and as our response to the Dacre review, we will progressively reduce the time taken to release official documents. As the report recommended, we have considered the need to strengthen protection for particularly sensitive material, and there will be protection of royal family and Cabinet papers as part of strictly limited exemptions. But we will reduce the time for release of all other official documents below the current 30 years, to 20 years. So that Government information is accessible and useful for the widest possible group of people, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who led the creation of the worldwide web, has agreed to help us to drive the opening up of access to Government data on the web over the coming months.
I have highlighted the section "there will be protection" because it does not state what the scope or limits of this protection is and states they will be "part of strictly limited exemptions" again without defining what that means. It does not say cabinet papers will be completely exempted.
Now call me an old cynic but as soon as I heard this my first thought was that this could be a highly political and partisan measure. By the time this came in in 2010 we would suddenly find a lot of information from the entire 1980s would come out in one fell swoop. It cannot be a coincidence that happens to coincide with the entirety of Margaret Thatcher's reign as Prime Minister. Even if there does end up being an exemption for all cabinet papers there will surely still be some politically embarrassing things that went on further down the chain and journalists will have a field day with 10 years worth of data to mine.
This is unjust and unfair. Brown is trying to move the goal-posts and use his power in a way that could give his party an advantage and disadvantage the Tories. If Brown wants to convince us that he is not trying to pull a fast one here he should pledge to decrease the limit say by a year or two every year so the information comes out gradually (although a bit faster than before) until the 20 number is reached and not until after the next election. That way, there will be limited or no partisan advantage in the scheme.
I see that Mr Political Betting, Mike Smithson also thinks there is something suspicious about Brown's plans here.