ONE of the
treats for journalists important tools of public accountability at this time of year has traditionally been the release of cabinet office papers, and other government documents, from 30 years ago. The usual run-through sees the files get deposited in the National Archives in Kew, where, once they are open to the public, everybody gets to express mock surprise at all things which were said in private which we had always suspected were being said anyway.
But as much as the papers are a handout story for the newspapers, often helpful during the slow days after New Year, the 30 year release rule has nevertheless felt part of a free and fair flow of information, providing the public with better understanding, clarity and confirmation. That’s why many cried swizz when it was revealed last week that only a dribble of the papers from 1986 would be released this time, and that a decision had been made somewhere in the government to hold back other files. It’s apparently the first time in half a century such a step has been taken.
Now, maybe there is a good reason – beyond the risk of a red face here or there – for the secrecy, but what is striking is that the reason for the suppression of the files this year has not even been explained. We don’t know who made the call, or on what grounds. It came to ahead again this evening when Labour MP Louise Haigh snatched some time in the House of Commons to probe a little further, asking the speaker John Bercow whether he could encourage ministers to share the reasoning with MPs. She said:
I’m genuinely sorry to take the time of the House today but over the Christmas recess we discovered the government has stopped the long standing practice of releasing the historic cabinet papers to the National Archives for the New Year. Only a small selection of files covering the 1986-1988 period have been provided and those dealing with issues such as the Poll Tax and the Black Monday stock market crash remain secret. Given that the ministers responsible were themselves advisers to the then government it is important that we know who made this decision and for what reasons – yet no statement has been made to this House.
Apparently they have found the way to reduce the accountability of two Tory governments in one go. Is there anything you can do, Mr Speaker, to ensure that ministers come to this House and explain this decision, not just so they can be held to account for themselves but also to ensure that the public know about the decisions that previous administrations made in their name.
Bercow was in an awkward position, and he speedily explained that all this was not within his remit as speaker. But his response to Haigh underlined how difficult it can be to get an answer out of ministers, if ministers don’t want to give you one. Rather than get a straight answer to a straight question, she was advised that she would have to use her ‘ingenuity’ to chip away at the government until someone was willing to say something. He said:
As things stand I’ve received no indication that a minister wishes to make a statement on the subject. That said, the concern will doubtless be heard on the Treasury bench and it will be relayed to the relevant ministers. Knowing the honourable lady as I have come to know her over the last eight months I’m sure she will use her ingenuity to find ways to pursue the matter through questions or possibly by seeking an opportunity for debate.
So, even if this isn’t the most pressing issue worrying MPs and ministers right now, here is a situation where information normally made available to the public has been shielded, nobody is saying why, and an MP has been told to devise a more cunning plan than asking a simple question in the Commons if she wants an explanation to the secrecy behind the secrecy.