Public Records Act – frequently asked questions

Find answers to common questions about the Public Records Act (PRA).

What is the Act for?

This is summed up in the long title of the Public Records Act – ‘An Act to make provision with respect to public records and the Public Record Office’.

What does the Public Records Act (PRA) do?

  • makes provision for the Public Record Office (first set up by the 1838 Public Record Office Act), moving it from the Master of the Rolls to the Lord Chancellor and putting a Keeper of Public Records at its head. (This is still the case although the Public Record Office now functions as part of The National Archives and the Keeper is also Chief Executive)
  • gives various powers and duties to the Lord Chancellor, some of which have since been delegated to the Keeper of Public Records
  • gives various powers and duties to the Keeper of Public Records, including the power to acquire non-public records
  • sets up the Lord Chancellor’s Advisory Council
  • sets up arrangements for the selection and transfer of public records to The National Archives or a place of deposit by a specified deadline. From 1 January 2013 this was reduced from 30 to 20 years, but there is a ten year transition in place covering records from the years 1984-2001 and a ‘saving’ provision means that records from 1983 remain subject to a 30 year transfer rule
  • allows public records to be retained by a department for a further period if the Lord Chancellor gives his approval
  • sets up the place of deposit system, by which other archives services around the country can be appointed to preserve and provide access to public records
  • makes special provision for public records relating to Scotland and Northern Ireland, allowing them to be transferred there where appropriate. There is also special provision for Welsh public  records: under the Government of Wales Act 2006, they are not subject to the PRA but are to be treated as if they were until an order has been made transferring responsibility for them to Welsh ministers
  • sets up arrangements for research and other use of public records and for related services, such as opportunities to inspect records and to buy copies of them
  • allows fees specified in a statutory instrument to be charged for copies and other services
  • allows records not selected for preservation to be presented to another institution as an alternative to destruction

What does the PRA not do?

  • require departments to keep records of their work or to manage those records over and above safeguarding them and select them for preservation
  • determine when public records are released for public access – that happens under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) and, for information relating to the environment, the separate Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR)

What is a public record under the PRA?

There is no consolidated list of bodies whose records are public records. The Act contains a general definition of public records at Schedule 1 paragaph 2, specifies some exclusions, and goes on to list bodies which fall outside the general definition but nonetheless have been made public record bodies. The following are public records:

  • records already in the Public Record Office at the time of the 1958 Act
  • administrative and departmental records belonging to Her Majesty, in the UK or elsewhere, in right of Her Majesty’s Government, and in particular records of or held in any government department and records of offices, commissions or other bodies under HMG in the UK
  • records of courts and tribunals
  • records of other bodies if their own legislation brings them within the PRA or they have been brought within its scope in some other way, e.g. British Council. These bodies are listed in a table following paragraph 3 of Schedule 1

The term ‘records’ is defined in the PRA (at section 10) in a way that suggests it is intended to be technology-neutral – ‘”records” includes not only written records but records conveying information by any other means whatsoever’.

What records are not public records under the PRA?

  • records of local authorities, the police (except for the Metropolitan Police  up to 2003, when it passed to the Mayor of London), universities and schools
  • records of bodies working wholly or mainly in Scotland or concerned with Scottish affairs
  • Welsh public records as defined in the Government of Wales Act 2006
  • registers of birth, death, marriage, civil partnership and adoption (known as civil registers)
  • the permanent collections of museums and galleries that are themselves subject to the PRA
  • the records of non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs) that are bodies corporate and have not been brought within PRA by their own legislation or by subsequent Order

What are The National Archives’ duties under the PRA?

  • provide guidance and supervision to public record bodies on the safekeeping and selection of public records
  • preserve transferred records
  • provide facilities for the public to see and obtain copies of transferred records, unless the records are withheld because an exemption in the Freedom of Information Act applies. The copies can be certified as authentic copies if requested. Guides and indexes to the records are included in the facilities offered by The National Archives
  • oversee the place of deposit system on behalf of the Lord Chancellor
  • return records temporarily at the request of the transferring organisation

What are the duties of public record bodies under the PRA?

  • selection of records for permanent preservation under the guidance and supervision of the Keeper of Public Records
  • safe-keeping of those records
  • transfer of records to The National Archives or an approved place of deposit by the due date unless they need to be retained, in which case the Lord Chancellor’s approval must be obtained
  • formal applications for retention are made through The National Archives and reviewed by the Advisory Council. Note that the deadline for transfer to The National Archives is being reduced to 20 years following amendment of the PRA through the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. This is taking place gradually, starting with transfer of records from 1983 and 1984 by the end of 2013, and by 2022 the deadline for transfer will be 20 years
  • disposal of records not selected for preservation, by destruction or presentation to another institution

Have they obligations relating to records under any other Acts?

  • under the FOIA (and the EIR) they participate in decisions to release or withhold records from public access:
    • For records not yet transferred they make the decisions but, if the records are retained records (records held back from transfer with the Lord Chancellor’s approval) they must, if intending to claim that the public interest lies in applying an exemption rather than releasing the information to an applicant, consult the Lord Chancellor
    • After transfer they must advise The National Archives on whether an exemption should be applied and, if The National Archives decided it should be, decide whether the public interest in disclosure outweighs the public interest in applying an exemption, consulting the Lord Chancellor as described in the bullet point above. This applies whatever the age of the records
  • they should also follow the good practice set out in the Code of Practice on the Management of Records, issued under section 46 of the Freedom of Information Act, including the process for transferring records set out in Part 2 of that Code
  • the Civil Service Code, issued under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010,  specifies (at paragraph 6) that civil servants should ‘keep accurate official records’

Which records should be selected for preservation?

The National Archives has issued various types of guidance about appraisal of records to decide whether they should be selected for preservation or not. A good starting point is the Records Collection Policy (PDF, 0.12Mb)

Where can I find further information, guidance and support?