History of the Public Records Acts

The Public Records Office Acts 1838, 1877 and 1898

The Public Record Office Act was passed in 1838 to ‘keep safely the public records’. It placed records of existing and ancient courts of law and their offices in a non-ministerial department under the keepership of the Master of the Rolls. The Public Record Office was organised in a number of branches with headquarters at Rolls House on the Rolls Estate in Chancery Lane, central London.

The Master of Rolls was empowered to regulate public access to records and to fix fees for their inspection, where appropriate. He was also required to appoint a Deputy Keeper as Chief Record Keeper.

At the time, the term ‘record’ referred only to legal documents. However, during the 1840s, papers and documents of government departments began to be accepted for preservation. This development was firmly supported by the Public Record Office and by the Treasury. To legalise matters an Order in Council was issued in 1852. A year earlier the first stone of the new purpose-built repository had been laid on the Rolls Estate and between 1854 and 1856 the various branches were moved into it. In 1862 they were joined by the records and staff of the State Paper Office, which had been absorbed by the Public Record Office in 1854, and further extensions were made to the repository between 1868 and 1900.

A limitation existed, however, as there was no formal requirement for government departments to transfer their papers and make them available for public access. Until the Public Record Office Acts of 1877 and 1898, there was also no provision for the destruction of material not selected for preservation. The 1877 Act allowed the Master of the Rolls to make rules to provide for the destruction of schedules of records which were not of sufficient public value to justify their preservation, so long as Parliament agreed to the schedules. No records older than 1715 were to be disposed of through these rules, a date which was then altered by the 1898 Act to no records earlier than 1660. Concern over this lack of a systematic procedure for government records led to an investigation by a Royal Commission on Public Records (1910-1919), but little came of its findings. It was not until the appointment of a committee in 1952 to review the existing arrangements that reform began.

The Grigg Committee and the Public Records Act 1958

The committee of 1952 was formed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Master of the Rolls. The chairman of this committee on departmental records was Sir James Grigg, a former Permanent Under Secretary of the War Office. The committee’s principal conclusions in its report of 1954 (Cmd 9163) were:

  • responsibility for the selection and transfer to the PRO of records worthy of permanent preservation should rest with departments
  • the PRO should be responsible for guidance, coordination and supervision of these processes
  • responsibility for the PRO should be transferred from the Master of the Rolls to a minister
  • most records should pass through a system of first and second reviews, determining which should be preserved until second review for the department’s own purposes and subsequently which should be preserved permanently on grounds of departmental need and historical significance
  • records should be transferred to the PRO by the time they were 30 years old and should be opened to general public inspection when they were 50 years old, unless special considerations dictated different periods
  • each department should appoint a departmental record officer to be responsible for its records from the time they were created or first reviewed until their destruction or transfer to the PRO, reporting to the director of establishments or an officer of similar status
  • a records administration officer should be appointed in the PRO, supported by a number of inspecting officers, to carry out the PRO’s responsibilities
  • cinematograph films, photographs and sound recordings should be treated as public records

The government announced its acceptance of the main recommendations in July 1955 and the first records administration officer (RAO) was appointed in December of that year. The first inspecting officers (IOs) were appointed in 1956 and the departmental record officers (DROs) were introduced to work with existing records and to implement new reviewing procedures.

Legislation was required to implement many of the Grigg Committee’s recommendations and the Public Records Act 1958 was the result. It came into force on 1 January 1959 to provide the statutory framework for the new system, and for the new relationship between the PRO and departments. It transferred responsibility for public records and the PRO to the Lord Chancellor, and placed the day to day management of the PRO in the hands of a Keeper of Public Records. For the first time a statutory, general public right of access was given after 50 years – with arrangements for exceptions – to public records transferred to the PRO or to a place of deposit elsewhere appointed by the Lord Chancellor.

The Public Records Act 1967 and the 30-year access rule

In 1967 it was decided to reduce the 50 year closure period to 30 years. This allowed records relating to the First World War and those created before 1923 to be available for public inspection. An amending Public Records Act took effect on 1 January 1968.

The introduction of the 30 year access rule focused attention on the need to identify those papers or records that could be classed as sensitive. The Lord Chancellor’s powers to give those records additional protection, at the request of their originating departments, became more significant.

With the records of the First World War now open, the records of the Second World War and the immediate post war period (other than service personnel records) were made available for public inspection at the beginning of 1972. Second World War service records remained in administrative use to manage pensions and other matters, and in general did not start to be transferred to The National Archives until 2022.

The Freedom of Information Act 2000

In January 2005, the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act replaced those parts of the Public Records Act that related to access to records.

The old regime, under which records were closed for 30 years unless the Lord Chancellor set a longer or a shorter period, has effectively been replaced by the Freedom of Information access regime.

The Public Records Act 1958 and the 20-year rule

The FOI Act did not affect the requirement to transfer public records to The National Archives or a place of deposit by the time they are 30 years old, unless the Lord Chancellor approves their retention in the department for a further period.

In October 2007 the Prime Minister announced an independent review of this deadline, and also of the provision in the FOI Act that some exemptions should fall away after 30 years. The report of the 30 Year Rule Review was published in January 2009 and recommended reduction. The government decided that both the FOI and the Public Records Acts should be amended to reduce the period to 20 years but with some exceptions, one of them being extension of the duration of the exemption in the FOI Act for information relating to communications with the Royal Family and Royal Household. The changes were made through the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010.

In 2013 the government began the work of a transition to releasing records when they are 20 years old, instead of 30 – read more about the 20-year rule.