Public Records Act – frequently asked questions

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

What does the Public Records Act (PRA) do?

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

  • 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 Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, some of which are delegated to the Keeper of Public Records
  • gives various powers and duties to the Keeper of Public Records, including:
    • in particular, the power to guide, supervise and coordinate arrangements for selection and transfer of public records
    • the power to acquire non-public records
  • defines which bodies produce public records
  • establishes that records include ‘not only written records, but records conveying information by any means whatsoever’ – so including electronic documents, emails, social media and databases, photographs and recorded film and sound information
  • sets up the Secretary of State for  Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’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 10-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 Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport approves
  • 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 selecting them for preservation. The requirement to keep accurate official records is set out in the Civil Service code
  • 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 paragraph 2, specifies some exclusions, and goes on to list bodies which fall outside the general definition but nonetheless are 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 His Majesty, in the UK or elsewhere, in right of His 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. These bodies are listed in a table following paragraph 3 of Schedule 1, and include National Health Service authorities and hospitals, the British Council, the national museums, and many others.

The term ‘records’ is defined in the PRA (at section 10) in such a way that it is technology-neutral – ‘”records” includes not only written records but records conveying information by any other means whatsoever’, including electronic records. The National Archives issues general advice and guidance for public record bodies on the management, selection and preservation of born digital records – to ensure that they can be transferred into The National Archives for permanent preservation and access by the public when the time comes.

Because of the vulnerability of born-digital records when technology platforms are replaced, this can involve the transfer of digital records at an earlier age than the 20 year limit that applies to traditional records.

The National Archives makes digital records, such as emails and other office documents, available through the on-line Discovery catalogue. The websites of public record bodies and their social media records are preserved and made available through the UK Government Web Archive.

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. The copies may be subject to payment of fees. 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 Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
  • return records temporarily at the request of the transferring organisation, however, The National Archives ordinarily provides access to records for transferring organisations on site or digitally in order to safeguard and preserve the originals

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 Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’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 was 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

Do bodies subject to the PRA have 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 Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’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 Secretary of State
    • 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 Secretary of State as 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 historical records set out in Part 3 of that Code. S.62 of FOIA sets out that records become historical records 20 years after the year that they were created.
  • 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?

Under s.3(2) of the Public Records Act the Keeper issues guidance to supervise and guide the selection of historic records worthy of permanent preservation, principally the Records Collection Policy.

Where can I find further information, guidance and support?