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Posted Tuesday, August 25, 1998

THE INDEPENDENT, London, August 21, 1998

Medical research files 'suppressed'

By Paul Lashmar and Andrew Mullins

DETAILS of 50-year-old medical experiments on monkeys and stray dogs, and a report on the use of outer space written in 1959 among files suppressed by the Government.

Despite the Labour Government's much-vaunted commitment to open government, thousands of documents are being withheld past the 30-year period.

The files on animals are Medical Research Council documents held at the Public Record Office in Kew, west London, but not open to the public. Other MRC reports are held back.

Two files from 1950 titled Monkey Experimentation, from the minutes of the Research Committee on the Medical and Biological Application of Nuclear Physics, are closed for 50 years. One can speculate that these are held back to spare the feeling of animal lovers over the grim fate of our fellow primates.

The Medical Research Council says that files involving animals or patients' records are held for 50 years.

The suppression of the Ministry of Defence's 1959 report, "The use of outer space", will be grist to the mill of Ufologists and X Files addicts alike. The non-release of a 1972 MoD file on Kenneth Littlejohn will also arouse the interest of conspiracy theorists. Littlejohn was a renegade MI5 agent working against the IRA who died in mysterious circumstances. There have been suspicions that the secret services may have had a role in his death.

These items may verge on the bizarre but many Cabinet minutes and memorandums are still suppressed. Taking 1953 as a random year, 22 Cabinet minutes and 19 Cabinet memorandums for that year are still excised from the record. They will not to be released until 2004 or 2054.

Numerous files on Hong Kong from the MoD and the Foreign Office are "retained by department" with no release date. Why, for instance, is a Cabinet document on "Anglo-French Union", dated October 1956, withheld?

In July 1993, William Waldegrave, the minister then responsible for Cabinet records, launched an initiative to release documents held past the 30-year period. Tens of thousands of documents were given "accelerated release".


But concern is rising at the number that continue to be withheld. Some are withheld to protect privacy. These include hundreds of files on the Royal Family. Files that impinge on individual privacy of those still alive are often closed for 75 years.

But, the Government cannot say how many documents it continues to hold back. A spokeswoman from the Cabinet Office said there is "no central tally" of documents that continue to be suppressed.

In recent weeks the Government's commitment to open government has been questioned after the failure to produce a Freedom of Information Bill.

Historians, such as Richard Aldrich, of the University of Nottingham, say the Government concentrates on releasing documents that produce publicity, such as details of the plot to kill Hitler. "What we have is a few high-profile releases like the recent SOE [Special Operations Executive] documents, while documents that are more important to our understanding of history may take another 10 years to be released."

Brian Brivati, of Kingston University, said that by "cherrypicking" files that attract publicity, "we end up with bits and pieces and it will be a long time before we can write proper history".

According to Mr Aldrich, the biggest problem is the lack of resources given to government departments to release documents. "Britain doesn't value its history. In the United States, government hire the best historians to oversee their declassification programmes. Here they often use low-rank civil servants who have little historical knowledge."

He cited the recent case of a government "weeder" who had obviously spent hours excising the initials "PUSD" from documents. PUSD stands for the Foreign Office's Permanent Under-Secretary's Department and one of its tasks is to keep an eye on MI6.

"The authorities seem quite unaware that the intelligence and security aspects of PUSD were discussed as early as 1956 in Lord Strang's memoirs," Mr Aldrich said.

He pointed to cutbacks in the number of people "weeding" files for release. "Each year the budgets are cut," he said. "The staff are demoralised and worked to the bone. The MoD record office has been moved three or four times in the last three years."

Mr Brivati said: "It is ludicrous that they do not release everything pre-1950, exempting only those files which intrude on individual privacy. This would free up weeders to work on later periods."   

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