Tessa Stirling, Cabinet Office (Chair)
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Ministry of Defence
Professor Christopher Andrew, Corpus Christi
Professor Peter Hennessy, Queen Mary's
Alan Glennie, Cabinet Office (Secretary)
The Group approved the summary of its previous discussion for publication on the Cabinet Office internet site.
The Security Service representative explained that as a result of discussions on how the SIS and Security Service websites could be developed it had been proposed that there should be a UK Intelligence and Security Portal – something akin to an intelligence version of Government Direct – as there was currently no central way for the public to access information relating to security and intelligence matters. The Portal would provide links to relevant websites, new information and Agency posted items and would be of great use to researchers as not all sites were straight forward to navigate. It could also be expanded to include international and academic websites. If there was sufficient interest from the Group then the Security Service would look at developing the idea. In discussion, it was noted that once the Portal had been set up the Security Service would no longer have a role and that the Cabinet Office seemed the logical home for it to be managed thereafter. Other than a Portal Manager to take in information from the agencies and departments only minimal resources would be needed for it to be maintained.
Tessa said that the proposal was welcomed by the Group as a Security and Intelligence Portal would provide easier access to information, but that the proposal would first need to be submitted to Sir Richard Mottram for his agreement. It was important for the boundaries of the Portal to be defined and for the submission to be clear about what is involved. There would also be a need to produce something to show to webmasters in departments.
The SIS representative said that Professor Keith Jeffrey had started work on the official history of SIS and that he would be considering how the rules on the review of SIS information might be amended to give Professor Jeffrey and Reviewers more freedom to release information covering the period up until 1945. The current guidance was primarily concerned with protecting the identities of agents and case officers. However, there may be scope for other areas of information to be released and he was, therefore, looking at how the rules might be simplified to allow this.
It was suggested that the Official History might be treated differently from the release of records. However, it would be difficult to sustain the position on SIS information in departmental records if the SIS itself was paring down their position.
Professor Hennessy said he had received a letter from one of his students about delays in processing FOI requests for DIS Assessments from the 1970s and 1980s. Since receiving his letter, the situation had changed in that it was evident delays had occurred because of the need to consult with the United States authorities.
In discussion about the handling of requests under the Freedom of Information Act, the MOD representative said MOD tried to have a dialogue with the requestor if there was to be a delay in responding by the 20 day deadline. However, it was noted in discussion that, if there was a need, to refer to overseas authorities then lengthy delays could occur and it was sometimes the case that the overseas authorities' views were different from our own. Any differences would need to be resolved. It was noted that the resources available to the security and intelligence agencies to provide advice on security and intelligence material found on departmental files varied and that this could sometimes hinder progress. In addition requests involving the potential application of a Section 23 or Section 24 always needed interdepartmental consideration and consequently further delay could result.
Professor Hennessy mentioned that the Lord Chancellor was due to speak about ‘
FOI one year on’ at a conference on 11 February and that Lord Falconer might say something about a reduction in the 30 year rule and about continuing the work started under the Waldegrave Initiative. Tessa said she did not expect Lord Falconer would make any significant announcement and, in particular, would not suggest a change to the 30 year rule. Nor was he likely to announce significant special arrangements for historians to get information outside the FOI regime. But it might be possible to get some helpful comment from Lord Falconer.
Professor Hennessy suggested that the Group should participate in a joint seminar with students from Queen Mary's as part of the series of events being run by the University. The seminar would be subject to Chatham House rules and hosted in London by Queen Mary's. It would give students the opportunity to discuss topics on which they were working and might enable them to see where the subject was going. It would be part of the rolling conversation in which the Group was engaged.
It was agreed that that the Group would consider taking part in a seminar with Queen Mary's to be held in the Autumn 2006.
The next meeting of the Group would be held on 28 June 2006.
31 May 2006