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Thursday, August 03, 2017

What is the government hiding from us?

There will inevitably be a huge number of answers to that question raising from the positively conspiratorial to the mundane. If Ministers and civil servants wish to rise above suspicion, paranoid or otherwise, then they need to buck lifelong instincts and open up their files.

The Freedom of Information Act was designed to do precisely that of course, but the Blair Government lost its nerve and threw in so many exceptions and exclusions that the final product was a shadow what was originally intended, even of the US version.

There is little wonder therefore, that we continue to get headlines as in today's Independent that suggest a record number of files were withheld from release to the National Archives, raising concerns about the Government's approach to transparency.

The paper says that Whitehall departments have refused to release sensitive historical documents on issues including the UK's military relationship with Saudi Arabia and a royal visit to the Middle East. In total Departments applied to withhold 986 documents from 1986 and 1987 which were due to be released:

The papers should have gone to the National Archives in Kew, south-west London, and been made available for public inspection under the so-called 30-year rule, but officials can request that files stay secret if publication would undermine foreign relations, defence or security.

According to the newspaper, the documents included 40 connected to India, including files on UK defence sales and the Indian national security guard.

A further 15 relate to Saudi Arabia, including one on the "sale of Tornado and Hawk aircraft" and "training for Saudi Arabian special forces".

Some 27 papers relating to a visit to the Middle East by the Prince of Wales and Diana, Princess of Wales in 1986 were also retained by the Government.

The 986 retention applications were an increase of 4% on 2015-16 and more than 25% higher than 2014-15. The Advisory Council on National Records and Archives said that there was a "noticeable trend" that departments would withdraw their applications when challenged, which happened 22 times compared with four in the previous year, suggesting officials "had not given enough thought to the request".

As Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable says, this is a worrying increase in government secrecy that represents "an affront to our democratic ideals":

"It is in everyone's best interest to know what their Government is doing," he said. Too right.
Presumably documents relating to arms sales to South Africa when Labour was in government have also been withheld. Perhaps we will find out how kosher they were when ANC are voted out and RSA makes public her end of the story.
Whilst not necessarily related to this article I realise that Churchill after the war kept stuff about Bletchley park secret loosing our lead in computers but allowing the US to have them leading to Turing not being recognised in his lifetime. We lost out due to secrecy. To me keeping these recent things under wraps could mean we do not learn from our mistakes.
I disagree with Nigel about the chronology of IT development. We were still pioneering computer developments into the mid-1960s - and US was never far behind anyway. After the war, Turing had continued to work on computing at NPL and others from Bletchley Park took their expertise into industry and academia. So while they may not have been able to publish, nothing was lost - apart from the electronic valves from Colossus!

Three things did for us in my opinion: a) the Americans were better at marketing their machinery (sales to the big retail banks were key); b) they used the embargo on sales to iron curtain countries to their advantage; c) they maintained indirect government support for their industry while Mrs Thatcher and Michael Heseltine abandoned ours.
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