The public records system

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

The Public Records Act 1958 places responsibility for the management of public records on departments. Each appoints a departmental record officer who is responsible for the care of all its records (including electronic records). The departmental record officer’s work on public records is carried out under the guidance and supervision of The National Archives through the staff of the information management department. Staff of this department work with departmental record officers, and their staff, to select records for permanent preservation at The National Archives, to create finding aids to the records, and to ensure that the records are prepared and transferred to the correct archival standard. The information management department advises other government departments on good record keeping, and promotes the effective and efficient management of records across government.

Selection of public records takes place in two stages. The first, when the records have passed out of active use, usually takes place five years after a record has been created. At this point, records which are obviously worthless are destroyed, and those which have been identified as valuable for future administrative need, or future research are kept for further review at a later date. This process, known as second review takes place when the record is 15 to 25 years old. The lapse of time gives perspective to the judgment of which of these records are worthy of permanent preservation.

The Public Records Act also provides for the deposit of records in places other than The National Archives, at the discretion of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Examples of such records include records of certain courts, and semi-independent local bodies which are of local interest, films and sound recordings, and certain records of the national museums and galleries.

Separate national record offices exist for Scotland and Northern Ireland. The National Archives of Scotland (formerly the Scottish Record Office) 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 in 1923 as the archive for the province, and 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 Public Records Act 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 Act gives 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 new access rights may only be overridden by exemptions in the Act.

The FOI access regime replaces that of the Public Records Act, which was commonly referred to as the ’30 year rule’. Under this Act, records were opened on 1 January, 30 years after the date of the last paper or entry in a record, plus one extra year, to ensure that all papers on the file were at least 30 years old. Thus records bearing a last date of 1973 were released into the public domain on 1 January 2004. This process was known as the New Year’s Openings.

Some records used to be closed for periods longer than 30 years. There were various reasons for this extended closure. Some records contain distressing personal information about people and events. Others include information whose release could damage national security or international relations, or the information may have been supplied subject to certain confidential undertakings. The release of other types of information may be barred under legislation. Records that were closed for extended periods for reasons like this before the FOI Act came into force in January 2005, remain closed only where an exemption in the FOI Act 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 for alternative disposal. Most records are still transferred to The National Archives or other Places of Deposit after the second review process, that is, after they are 15 years old. Most of the records transferred after January 2005 are open; those which are closed have only been closed under an exemption in the FOI Act.

Under FOI, the public 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 keep back from transfer a record that is over 30 years old. The approval to retain is given by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and normally lasts for five years, after which time a new request must be made. It is usually granted on the basis of a continuing administrative need by the department, for example, maps and plans of mineworkings which are still with the Coal Authority.

Who agrees what should be retained?

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has to approve all applications to retain a record after the usual 20 year period defined in the Public Records Act. Departmental record officers make such requests, which are assessed in the first instance by members of The National Archives’ information management department. 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 MPs, academics, researchers and archivists. The Advisory Council scrutinises the applications, and those it agrees with are passed to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport for final approval.

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

Details of the closure status of individual records is usually given in the class list and finding aids for that particular record in our catalogue, Discovery. If you want to see information in a closed record, you can submit an FOI request asking for the record to be reviewed. We will re-examine the record in the light of FOI, and if no exemptions apply, the record will be opened. Find more details on how to make an FOI request to The National Archives.

How can I find out more information?

Details of the closure status of individual records is usually given in the class list and finding aids for that particular record. Contact The National Archives for advice on how to contact departmental record officers of government departments, or of how to apply for undertakings to see certain record classes.

You can also contact The National Archives for advice on how to contact departmental record officers of government departments.