In the course of their work government departments and agencies (for example, the Ministry of Defence or the Environment Agency) create many records. Some of these are later preserved for posterity at The National Archives, so that citizens and historians can understand and analyse their government’s actions. Well-known examples of government records include minutes of Cabinet meetings, army service records, statistical reports and policy advice to Ministers.
Most records are used by government for a number of years and then either destroyed (if they are of no further use) or kept closed to the public for various reasons until they are 30 years old. This document explains why 30 years is the period of closure.
Some government documents are now opened to the public at an early stage, particularly because of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which came into force in 2005 and allows citizens to request that government information be released. The emergence of departments’ websites has also contributed to an expectation of ‘open government’. The Prime Minister has decided that it is now time to re-think whether 30 years is the right period for government documents as a whole to be kept closed.
The review team are considering how to balance openness and security within government, and will particularly examine the impact of the Freedom of Information Act.
The phrase ‘30 year rule’ is commonly used to describe the point at which records created by government departments are transferred to The National Archives, and at which most of these records are released to the public. In fact there is no single ‘rule’, but two rules that work together:
The Freedom of Information Act states that records should be released unless a specific exemption applies. Exemptions (for example, ‘formulation of government policy’) fall away after certain periods of time, mostly at 30 years. Therefore, many records that can be kept closed while they are under 30 years old have to be opened when they reach the point of 30 years after creation.
Most records transferred to The National Archives are either already open, or are opened at 30 years.
For further information about the Freedom of Information Act see
Before 1958, there was no public right of access to government records. The Public Records Act 1958 introduced a '50-year rule', which required that records transferred to The National Archives (then called the Public Record Office) be opened at 50 years unless there were specific reasons not to do so.
This was soon felt to be too long a period, and in 1967 this period was reduced to 30 years. The backlog of material aged between 30 and 50 years was released from 1968.
The next big change happened as a result of the Freedom of Information Act. Until this point, there were no legal criteria for keeping records closed after 30 years – a Minister had to seek the approval of the Lord Chancellor for extended closure. Over time, a number of criteria for extended closure – national security, foreign relations, the economy, personal privacy etc. – were developed, but these had no basis in law.
There were also inconsistencies. For example, some very personal records (the World War I Soldiers’ Records) were opened while soldiers were still alive, whereas other personal records (census records) were kept closed for 100 years.
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 codified the reasons why records could legitimately be closed after 30 years, and stated that records falling outside these ‘exemptions’ were therefore deemed open. One effect was that large numbers of records at The National Archives that had been considered closed under the old arrangements were immediately opened as the new Act came into effect.
Although many records are still closed for 30 years (or occasionally even longer) because they are ‘exempt’ under the Freedom of Information Act, the assumption that records will be closed for 30 years has been abolished by the Act, and government culture has had to adapt to a more open environment. Today around 80% of Freedom of Information requests are granted, most of which are for information that is less than 30 years old.
Most records are transferred from government departments to The National Archives by 30 years, but departments can specifically apply to keep things themselves for longer (in which case the Lord Chancellor needs to approve it). There are two main reasons for retaining records at the departments; one is that they are still in active use (for example, plans or drawings of buildings, or personnel files) and the other that they remain very confidential.
Not everything does get released when transferred to The National Archives. The Freedom of Information Act has reduced the number of records that can stay closed, but a very small proportion of material remains closed for a defined period. Examples include murder files, which remain closed until the children of the victim are 100 years old, in order to protect them from exposure to distressing personal information. Other records which remain closed relate to current defence or security, foreign relations etc..
There is a check in place to ensure that this is applied appropriately. The Lord Chancellor has an Advisory Council, chaired by the Master of the Rolls, which meets four times a year. Any records to be transferred to The National Archives that the transferring department wants to keep closed beyond 30 years come to the Council for consideration. The Council does regularly challenge cases, in which case the department needs to provide more evidence and justification, or change their decision.
The Security and Intelligence Services are exempt from the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, and The National Archives does not routinely take security-classified material that has a protective marking above ‘Restricted’. Much of this material does eventually come to The National Archives, either as the security difficulties fall away, or the files are no longer essential to current business. In many cases it is released to the public after a period of 50 years or more.