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30 December 2011

Why do we let our leaders get away with their decisions for three decades?

Waiting 30 years to release information means that it is too late to hold people to account.

By Steven Baxter

I don’t often agree with Paul Dacre, but he’s always been right about wanting to halve the 30-year rule. How is it that we should let our leaders get clean away with the consequences of their decisions for three decades?

Today, for example, we have learned that Margaret Thatcher kitted out Number 10 on expenses (but paid for an ironing board), Geoffrey Howe wanted to abandon Liverpool to decline and the secret service pressed the BBC to censor Panorama.

Why should we have waited until now to discover all this, now that those responsible are too old to answer for their actions — too frail in the case of Howe and Thatcher — and safely out of power? After all, we’ve paid for it. We voted for it — or at least we thought we did. So why shouldn’t we know about it? People in their 60s and 70s have the right to know what the governments they supported did with their votes, without having to go to the grave wondering. But of course, this situation suits those in power very nicely indeed.

There is understandably little pressure from within government to open up the freedom of information to extend to anything beyond what local councils spend on school dinners. While bean-counters’ decisions can be torn to shreds on the one hand, the big decisions remain safely locked away for 30 years, until it’s all been forgotten and history has already been written. Which politician is going to vote for more transparency, more openness, more scrutiny on them during their own lifetimes?

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Perhaps, in 2030 or thereabouts, we’ll discover the discussions the New Labour cabinet had about the Freedom of Information Act. Maybe we’ll all have a jolly old laugh about how it was decided that there was no way of opening up central government’s decision making, and how the rights of the voting public were so haughtily dismissed as usual.

The thing is, I’ll be 52 by the time I find out what the first government I voted for (in 1997) really got up to behind closed doors. Tony Blair will be 74, if he’s still with us (and I hope he is), and even older by the time the really contentious stuff about the Iraq War comes out. It will be too late to hold these people to account for the decisions they made and the things they did.

In the meantime, they have been able to tell their side of the story. They’ve been able to write history from their point of view, omitting the unpleasant details that might come out and surprise us; they’ve been able to make money out of presenting their version of events as what really happened. And we can’t do anything about it.

The dusty old faces recite the same tired arguments at times like this. Government needs to be secret, in order to preserve the decision-making process. Ministers must know that everything’s locked away until they’re about to die, in order to sleep soundly in their beds for the intervening time.

And I’m not saying we should broadcast cabinet meetings live — just that there isn’t so long to wait until we find out what really happened. It would serve our democracy better, and let our leaders know that they won’t be able to escape scrutiny for the decisions they made and the things they really said. But then, which prime minister would open him or herself up to that? We may have to wait more than 30 years for a change to come.