On 1 January 2005, the Freedom of Information Act will come fully into force. With the implementation of the Act, all new and existing records, excluding those subject to exemption, will be available to the public, effectively ending the 30 year rule governing access to official documents. The conference provided historians with the opportunity to learn more about the Freedom of Information Act and its potential impact on their work.
A primary aim of the conference was to provide a forum for historians to express their views about the process whereby records are released and learn more about the latest thinking within government departments. The conference was opened by Sarah Tyacke, Chief Executive of The National Archives, who hoped that the day would generate useful discussion.
The first presentation was a keynote address delivered by Baroness Ashton of Upholland, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Constitutional Affairs. In her presentation, the Minister stressed the importance she attached to the Freedom of Information Act and reaffirmed the government's determination that the public should reap the rewards of greater openness. The positive role played by the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Council on National Records and Archives in balancing the need for openness with the need for confidentiality was commended by the Minister who announced that 70,000 new files, many of which were currently closed to the public, would be made available to researchers in January 2005.
The anticipated impact of Freedom of Information legislation on government departments formed the central core of presentations delivered by Gill Bennett of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Alex Ward of the Ministry of Defence. In their presentations both speakers expressed the view that Freedom of Information was not so much a revolutionary as an evolutionary development in the sphere of public access to information. All government departments currently operated under the 1992 Code of Access to Government Information which provided many researchers with a valuable route for getting hold of material older than 30 years old which had been retained or closed. Both speakers believed that the significant change introduced by the Freedom of Information Act was the access provisions to material less than 30 years old. It was stressed, however, that Freedom of Information did not imply free access to all government records. Issues such as counter-terrorism, human rights and good governance required a climate of confidentiality in order to establish trust and ensure understanding.
The morning session was concluded by a round table discussion chaired by Chris Collins of the Thatcher Foundation. The session was used to answer a variety of questions from the floor covering such issues as the role of the Information Commissioner, access to service records and concern that departments would destroy records early to avoid the need to release information. This latter point was rejected by Gill Bennett who believed that in order to function effectively government departments required a full record of all its activities. The concern was also expressed that departments would be so overwhelmed with Freedom of Information requests that the normal process of review would be adversely affected. This eventuality was considered unlikely as departments would be able to redeploy staff more effectively.
The afternoon session was composed of two parallel workshops chaired by Professor Ian Nish on foreign and defence records and Professor Rodney Lowe on domestic records. The workshops provided the opportunity for delegates to make specific requests concerning records of particular interest. The issues covered included the process of submitting a request for information, future research trends and the application of the various exemptions.
The conference was closed by Professor Richard Aldrich who summed up the day's events. He expressed the view that to work effectively Freedom of Information would require a cultural change by both government departments and the academic community. He also expressed the concern that unless historians became more engaged in the process, the profession would be placed at a disadvantage in relation to other pressure groups that were better organised and able to use the new legislation more effectively. The delegates expressed the view that the conference had been a great success and that a follow-up seminar in January 2006, to discuss the impact of the Act during its first year, would be a welcome development.