Harriet Jones considers the impact of the new Freedom of Information Act on students of contemporary history.
We shall finally gain a statutory right to freedom of information in the United Kingdom this summer, when the Freedom of Information Act receives the nod from the Queen. Scotland, which is to have its own Act, will follow some time in the coming year. Contemporary historians are affected by the new legislation, because the Act will amend the Public Records Act 1958 and alter the present arrangements regarding the release of historical records. This might be a very good thing. But the success of the new statutory regime will depend largely upon the use that we as historians make of it, and there are some lingering grounds for concern.
The United Kingdom has lagged well behind the United States and many Commonwealth and European countries in its commitment to open government. Indeed Sweden has had a statutory right to freedom of information since the early nineteenth century although the rest only began to follow suit more than 150 years later. In Britain there has been pressure for more open government since the late 1960s. For historians, this was marked by the Public Records Act 1967, which lowered the barrier on releases from fifty to thirty years, and changed the pattern of historical scholarship. From that moment, contemporary history became feasible as a serious field of study in Britain.