Under new freedom of information laws the length of time before records are made public and how long exemptions can last for have been shortened from thirty years to twenty.

Under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (the FoI Act) thirty years after their creation a record becomes a ‘historical record’ and is transferred to the National Archives and to other local authority places of deposit. In doing so, they become available to the public. Following a review, the government recently decided to reduce the period from thirty to twenty years, providing a ten-year transitional period to allow for the transfer of files.

Once a record becomes an historical record certain exemptions from the requirement to disclose information under the FoI Act cease to be available. Therefore, in parallel with this change, the maximum lifespan of exemptions to the right of access will be reduced from thirty years to twenty. From 1 January 2014 each year the maximum duration of the following exemptions will reduce by one year, over a ten year period: sections 30 (investigations and proceedings conducted by public authorities); 32 (court records); 33 (audit functions); 35 (formulation and development of government policy); 36 (prejudice to effective conduct of public affairs), except in relation to Northern Ireland and the work of Executive Committee of Northern Ireland Assembly; and 42 (legal professional privilege).

The change to a ‘20-year rule’ is a significant one and has been a long time coming. It is viewed as a key part of the government’s transparency agenda; with the aim to provide greater openness and accountability, thereby strengthening democracy through more timely public scrutiny of government policy and decision-making.