The public records system

As the national archive for England, Wales and the United Kingdom, The National Archives holds records from across the UK central government and, in smaller numbers, from the central courts.

Legal basis

Under the Public Records Act 1958 (PRA), the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has responsibility for public records and the operation of the overall system. The PRA established the Public Record Office, now The National Archives. It sets out the delegated responsibilities of the Keeper of Public Records to safeguard and preserve public records and maintain the utility of the archive. The Lord Chancellor has particular responsibility for court records. The PRA makes provision for an independent advisory body, The Advisory Council on National Records and Archives to advise the Secretary of State on issues relating to access to public records. It represents the public interest in deciding what records should be open to the public or withheld under Freedom of Information Act 2000 exemptions (FOI Act). 


The PRA places responsibility for the safekeeping, selection and transfer of public records on the body that creates or holds them. It placed a duty on the Keeper to guide, supervise and coordinate the management of public records held by bodies subject to the PRA. In practice, the Keeper issues formal guidance such as the Records Collection Policy and promotes good practice in a variety of ways. The National Archives collects and publishes data on compliance and reports to the Secretary of State.  

Bodies subject to the PRA appoint a Departmental Record Officer (DRO) who is responsible for the management and safekeeping of all records regardless of their format. The high-level responsibilities of the DRO are set out in the Section 46 Code of Practice on the Management of Records, issued under the FOI Act. 

The National Archives advises government departments on good record keeping, and promotes the effective and efficient management of records across government. This includes access to experts that advise on all aspects of information and records management, covering both physical (i.e., paper, film) and digital records. The National Archives works with DROs and their teams to ensure that records are managed and selected in line with guidance, and prepared for transfer according to the correct technical and archival standard.

Traditionally, the selection of paper public records takes place in two stages. The first, when the records have passed out of active use around five years after a record was created. At this point, records with no value are destroyed, and those identified with potential administrative, research or historical value in the future are kept for further review. The second review takes place closer to the 20 year deadline. The lapse of time gives perspective when judging which records are worthy of permanent preservation.

The process for selecting digital records can be accelerated, to enable the preservation of digital formats and systems that may otherwise become obsolete. For short-term bodies such as public inquiries, The National Archives may take in records soon after the inquiry has completed its work to ensure their survival.  

The PRA also gives the Secretary of State power to approve the deposit of records in places other than The National Archives. Examples of  records deposited locally include the records of certain courts, records of local interest (such as NHS bodies and prisons), and particular records of national museums and galleries.

Separate national record offices exist for Scotland and Northern Ireland

The National Records of Scotland is a non-ministerial department of the Scottish Government. It was formed in 2011 in a merger of the General Register Office for Scotland and the National Archives of Scotland. It holds records of departments which are wholly or mainly concerned with Scottish affairs, the Scottish courts and of private individuals and organisations.

The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) was established under the Public Records Act (Northern Ireland) 1923. It is the archive for Northern Ireland operating under the Department for Communities in the Northern Ireland Executive. PRONI contains records of the Northern Ireland courts and departments, local government records, and some private and business records.

Access to public records

Until January 2005, access to public records was governed by the Public Records Act 1958, and the Public Records Act 1967. The Freedom Of Information (FOI) Act came fully into force in January 2005 and replaced those parts of the PRA which related to access to records.

When are records made available to the public?

Since the FOI Act came fully into force, members of the public can ask to see information held by public authorities as soon as it has been created. The FOI Act gave people two new rights of access:

  • the right to be told whether the information is held by the public authority
  • the right to be provided with the information

These access rights may only be overridden by exemptions in the Act.

The FOI access regime replaced that of the PRA, which was commonly referred to as the ’30 year rule’. Before the FOI Act, records were opened on 1 January every year, 30 years after the date of the last document or entry, plus one extra year, to ensure that all papers on the file were at least 30 years old. This was known as the New Year’s Openings. Following consultation,. the government decided that FOI and PRA legislation should be amended to reduce the period to 20 years, so that records would be selected and transferred by 20 years old. These changes were enacted through the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010; so from 2013 two years’ worth of records were transferred by government departments to The National Archives each year until 2022. From 2022 onwards, a single year’s worth of records that have reached 20 years old are transferred.

Most records transferred by 20 years are ‘open’ for public access. Some records however are transferred ‘closed’, meaning subject to FOI exemptions. There are various reasons for this. Some contain sensitive or distressing personal information about people and events. Others include information that could damage national security or international relations if released, or the information may have been supplied subject to certain confidential undertakings. The release of other types of information may be barred under other legislation. Records that were closed for extended periods before the FOI Act came into force in January 2005, remain closed only where an exemption applies.

Are records not held by The National Archives available?

FOI has not directly altered the way in which records are selected for permanent preservation or disposal. Selected records are still transferred to The National Archives or other Places of Deposit by the time they reach 20 years. Most of the records transferred after January 2005 are open; others may be closed under an exemption in the FOI Act.

Under FOI, the public also have a right of access to information in public records before they are transferred. Members of the public should simply ask the public authority which currently holds the information for access to it.

Some records are ‘retained’ by government departments. Retention means that a department requests the right to hold back from transfer a record that is over 20 years old. The approval to retain records is given by the Secretary of State, and lasts for a designated period, usually up to 10 years, after which time a new request must be made. Retention is considered in relation to a specific set of criteria, such as continuing administrative to access original maps and plans of mines as they are used to inform modern urban planning and construction.

Who agrees what should be retained?

The Secretary of State can grant approval to retain records that have reached 20 years. DROs within government departments are ordinarily responsible for making applications to retain records, which are assessed in the first instance by The National Archives. The requests are then considered by the Advisory Council on National Records and Archives, which is chaired by the Master of the Rolls, and composed of academics, researchers, archivists, former officials and MPs. The Advisory Council scrutinises the applications, and those it agrees  are passed to the Secretary of State to request final approval.

How can I find out if I can see a record?

Our catalogue, Discovery, holds details of each individual record including of its access status. If a record is ‘closed’ subject to FOI exemptions, an FOI request can be submitted asking for the record to be reviewed. The National Archives FOI Team will review the record in consultation with the government department which transferred it to us. If no exemptions apply, the record will be opened.