WHITEHALL officials have taken a sensitive file on “subversive activities” relating to the Lockerbie disaster from the National Records of Scotland and failed to return the documents, it can be revealed.
The Scotland Office took the secret “security” file nearly a decade ago, when the department was under Labour control, but it still remains in its possession.
Officials used a temporary loan system operated by the NRS to request the file weeks after Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Libyan national convicted of the atrocity, was released from prison.
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Another file taken by the Scotland Office and not returned relates to handguns in the wake of the Dunblane massacre.
The NRS is a non-ministerial government department responsible for the census, family history, as well as the national archives and historical records.
Old files are catalogued and their status – whether open or closed – can be determined through a search on the body’s website. Freedom of information legislation also applies to the files.
Under a process known as “retransmission”, public bodies can ask for the temporary return of documents. However, dozens of files that were borrowed decades ago have stayed with the organisations and departments that requested them.
Other material was requested in the post-devolution era by successive administrations north of the border, as well as by the renamed Scotland Office.
Some files appear innocuous – agriculture features prominently as a subject – but other archived documents are on highly controversial subjects.
In September 2009, the Labour-run Scotland Office, which was then led by Jim Murphy, requested a file on the Lockerbie disaster entitled “security: subversive activities”.
According to the NRS, the file from the late 1980s contained Scottish Office notes and minutes, submissions to ministers, police briefing notes, correspondence, and “other papers”.
It is listed as being “closed” until 2066 but the Scotland Office would have to consider its release under FOI, if asked.
Weeks before the Scotland Office request, al-Megrahi, who was convicted in 2001 of the terror attack on Pan Am Flight 103, was released from prison on compassionate grounds by the Scottish Government.
Aamer Anwar, a lawyer who represents al-Megrahi’s family, said an application had been lodged with the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission about the Libyan man’s conviction.
He said of the file: “We will be demanding a full explanation from the present Secretary of State Mr Mundell and request that any papers which we believe to be critical to any pending appeal are returned immediately.
“I would hope this is not another example of an attempt to whitewash the unsavoury role the UK government at the time played in the whole Lockerbie case at expense of the victims as well as Mr Al-Megrahi.”
In another “retransmission”, the Scotland Office in 2005 borrowed a file on firearms control, which related to Ministerial consideration in 1996 on the legal possession of handguns.
The file was created in the aftermath of the Dunblane tragedy and dates from a time when John Major’s Tory Government was under pressure to ban handguns.
Both the Lockerbie and firearms files remain in the hands of the Scotland Office, even though they were secured via the temporary borrowing system.
A file on the “payment of gratuities” to police “informers” between 1920 and 1964 was also borrowed nearly 25 years ago by the then Tory Government, but was not returned.
A UK Government spokesperson said: “It is routine practice for public authorities to request files from national archives to learn lessons from the past and to assist in policy making, this is one of the main reasons we keep archives. It is also routine for authorities to keep files for as long as they are required.”
FILES ON STONE OF DESTINY ALSO TAKEN FROM ARCHIVES
THE Scottish Government is also holding on to files taken from the archives – these include documents on the return of the Stone of Destiny in the 1990s, and another on devolution.
Over a dozen files on the Stone of Destiny were requested by the SNP Government in 2015 and have not been handed back.
In 2013, the Scottish Government also recalled a file on the UK Labour Government’s arrangements for holding a plebiscite on devolution in the 1990s.
Similarly, a file on the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service and clinical trials of therapeutic substances was requested by the Government in 2009 from the NRS.
Carole Ewart, Convener of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said: “Documents of significant public interest are being quietly withdrawn with impunity and the amount of information available to the public is being systematically reduced. A disclosure log should be prominently published on the NRS website listing when and why the ‘borrowing’ took place and be subject to a 3 monthly review process. That way the process is transparent and is inherently more accountable.”
A National Records of Scotland spokesperson said: “Public authorities depositing records at NRS have the right to request their temporary return for business purposes, and regularly do so. No records returned in this way have been reported to us as lost.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government can request the temporary return of files transferred to the National Records of Scotland for a variety of reasons. There is no obligation for such files to be returned within a certain timeframe.”
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