File destruction doubled ahead of new information act
Matthew Tempest and agencies
Thursday December 23 2004
Some Whitehall departments have doubled the number of files they shred in advance of the Freedom of Information Act coming into force, new figures uncovered by the Conservatives revealed today.
According to research by the shadow cabinet office minister, Julian Lewis, the biggest increases were at the ministry of defence, the department of trade and industry and the department of work and pensions.
The FoI act, which will give the public access to previously secret files, was passed into law four years ago. But it only becomes active on the first day of 2005, when it will be a criminal offence for a civil servant to destroy files with the intention of preventing their disclosure once a request to see them has been made under the act.
The Tories are now calling for an investigation of what they call „a bonfire of the historical records“ after Mr Lewis discovered the increase in shredding from a series of parliamentary answers.
In 1999-2000, 52,605 DTI files were destroyed, but by 2003-04 the number of documents shredded had shot up to 97,020. The MoD had also nearly doubled the number of files destroyed in the same period. But the sharpest rise was at work and pensions where 36,885 files were deleted last year – up from 15,524 four years ago.
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has also stepped up the shredding of thousands of documents.
Mr Lewis has called for an investigation by the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas.
Mr Lewis told the Independent: „The steep rise in shredding in some departments is hard to account for other than the awareness that information in these files will no longer be classified as confidential. In the past, the government could say nothing until 30 years had elapsed. It looks like there has been a bonfire of historical records.“
[…]The act will cover England, Wales and Northern Ireland from next year. Similar measures are being brought in at the same time in Scotland. It provides the public with a right of access to information held by about 100,000 public bodies, subject to various exemptions. While trivial emails, such as lunch invitations, can be deleted as soon as they are no longer relevant, anything with a bearing on policy should be kept.
Mr Thomas said a code of practice drawn up by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, on the implementation of the act set out as a starting proposition that files should generally be kept for five years before being considered for destruction, and a record should be kept of the destruction of any files.
(Thanks to A.M.E. Jonker)