Academics fear government documents are being released to the public too slowly

Jocelyn Major 14 February 2014

Fears have been expressed by academics that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) are releasing a large number of secret government documents too slowly. Professor Tony Badger, master of Clare College, is seeking assurance from the FCO that the declassification of these documents, numbered at around 600,000, occurs within a reasonable time frame.

A number of eminent historians have alleged that the files, which date back over 400 years, could revolutionise our understanding of parts of British history and have revealed intentions to begin legal action against the government for attempting to declassify the files at too slow a rate.

The files cover events from the African slave trade to Cold War espionage and Britons who suffered persecution in the Holocaust.

Professor Badger expressed concern that the FCO was not providing enough staff members to declassify the large number of documents.

He said: “I will have to get assurances that there is enough capacity to work through this material. It is a massive undertaking and it is important to establish whether there will be enough resources.

“I can understand why there is suspicion among my fellow historians. But one of the best proofs of the commitment to openness is that the Foreign Office don’t want to be embarrassed again, as they have been in the past.” 

The FCO announced in December that they are to spend six years assessing 60,000 files from the archive, yet historians such as Professor David Anderson of Warwick University, and Professor Sir Richard Evans of Cambridge University and Professor Margaret MacMillan of Oxford University have suggested that the FCO are not undertaking the task quickly enough.

Professor Anderson has indicated that he might begin a lawsuit should the disclosure of the documents not be accomplished in a reasonable time frame.

He told The Independent on Sunday: “We hope that we will get the response we seek from the Government, that they are doing everything that is reasonably practicable to release this material. But our worry is that the Government’s statements so far are so incredibly vague that they are self- evidently designed to bury this issue. “

The case would be led by Dan Leader, from the Leigh Day law firm, who commented: “It would potentially be a judicial review if the Government’s proposals do not comply with statutory obligations.”