This guidance relates to local authority archive services in England and Wales. For a general introduction to archives, see the Local Government Association (LGA) website.
Principal local authorities have a responsibility to keep safely and make available the records in their custody. The same legal responsibilities apply to both paper and digital records.
The National Archives has two roles: regulator and advisor. It can offer advice and support through Archive Sector Leadership’s teams or via this website. Services in Wales should seek advice from the Welsh Government: Libraries and Archives Service in the first instance.
Local authority responsibilities
Local authorities already do maintain and make available their records and deposited collections and are obliged to continue:
- providing reasonable access to the public.
An appropriate level of staffing and professional archival expertise is required to deliver these activities.
Key types of records
There are certain classes of records which have specific responsibilities of care and access. These are:
- public records
- diocesan records
- manorial documents
- tithe records
- acquired via Acceptance in Lieu scheme.
These records have specific protection / standards attached to them. In each case, decisions affecting record keeping cannot be made without due consultation with the relevant authorities including The National Archives. Finally, an authority cannot simply absolve itself of responsibility for these records.
Consequences of not delivering responsibilities
Councils can be officially held to account for not managing their records and archive service properly. To take one example, in 2011 the loss of planning records vital to the council’s operations in Warrington led to a major official investigation and condemnation from the Local Government Ombudsman.
A stripped-down service that does not meet the expected level of delivery, may badly affect functions that support the parent body’s objectives and operations or that promote the value of collections to local communities. Failure to deliver an effective service can also cause reputational damage.
Managing your responsibilities
The way in which individual services do this is framed by best practice and professional standards and validated by the Archive Service Accreditation Standard. This allows for interpretation according to the size, range and complexity of collections and mission of each service.
A professionally run archives service conforms most closely to the idea of ‘proper arrangements’, as described in the Local Government Act, 1972 (s. 224), and supports compliance with the Public Record, Freedom of Information and Data Protection Acts and the Environmental Information Regulations.
Records that have been acquired by and managed professionally in an archive have evidential weight and consequently the information can be trusted by the authority and its stakeholders.
Local authorities may choose to fund a joint service with other local authorities or partners, to deliver via an arm’s length body or to contract the service out. The responsibilities remain with the local authority, even if they no longer directly deliver the service.
In determining the level of service that needs to be provided, several factors need to be taken into account. The first is legislation (see below), but this is not the only determinant of the appropriate level of service and should be considered alongside the requirements of the Council’s own business units, the archival requirements of the collections and the expectations of users and the public. In most cases, the archive service will also be required to meet the national Archive Service Accreditation standard to fulfil its obligations under its appointment as a Place of Deposit under the Public Records Act.
The National Archives has a role in interpreting the legislation which affects records across the archive sector including local authorities.
Relevant legislation and regulations
Those of principal significance are:
- Freedom of Information Act 2000(FOIA)
- Data Protection Act 2018 and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)
- Environmental Information Regulations (2004)
Under FOIA, individuals may personally be criminally prosecuted for concealing information, mishandling, and failing to release information. In the first instance, authorities should take note of the section 46 Code of Practice (PDF, 360KB) issued under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
Under the Data Protection Act, the Information Commissioner can fine organisations up to €20 million (or sterling equivalent) or 4% of total annual worldwide turnover for non-compliance. Powers exist for criminal prosecution in some circumstances.
For further information, see the pages on The National Archives’ website ‘Archives and data protection law in the UK’. See also the Information Commissioner’s Office website for the full Guide to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
An efficiently run archive service will support an authority’s compliance by ensuring appropriate access to records. Without such a service, each request for information (including family and local history enquiries) would have to be serviced separately by the council, at greater cost.
Public sector legislation
An authority may have made a commitment to undertake the role of a Place of Deposit and acquire, preserve and make available Public Records for which the service is appointed. Public Records (for example records of courts, coroners, hospitals and prisons) are held on behalf of central government.
A Place of Deposit should provide suitable facilities for safe keeping, preservation and access. If the standard of care and access fall below a level considered acceptable by The National Archives, approval to hold public records may be removed if remedial action cannot be taken and alternative arrangements made for the records.
Significance of the Local Government Acts
Collectively, this legislation gives local authorities the responsibility to maintain their records and make them publicly accessible as well as the right to acquire others’ records and archives. This legislation also relates to local studies libraries when they contain original and archive materials.
Local Government Act, 1962
This governs records for which the council has chosen to take responsibility – including those acquired by purchase, gift or on loan.
Local Government Act, 1972
This governs the council’s own records, generated in the course of its business, and those it has acquired by gift, donation or purchase.
The Local Government (Access to Information) Act, 1985
This governs the requirement that minutes, agendas, reports and background papers of meetings of principal councils that are open to the public be available for public inspection.
Local Government (Wales) Act 1994, s.60
This requires councils in Wales to have a scheme setting out arrangements for the proper care of its records, which is submitted to Welsh Ministers. Further advice on s.60 schemes is available from the Welsh Government: Libraries and Archives Service .