Guidance

Colonial administration files

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has made available to the public a large collection of files from former British territories, sometimes known as the “migrated archives”.

All of these records, with the exception of those subject to legal exemptions, are now available to view at The National Archives (TNA). Details of the files are available on the TNA catalogue.

In June 2011 the Foreign Secretary appointed Professor Badger, Paul Mellon Professor of American History and Master of Clare College Cambridge as Independent Reviewer to oversee the release of the colonial administration files.

Professor Badger has made a video providing an overview of his role as Independent Reviewer:

Professor Tony Badger on the Foreign Office’s Colonial Administration files

Internal review into the FCO’s management and release of the colonial administration files

On 5 May 2011, the Foreign Secretary, the Rt Hon William Hague, informed Parliament that an internal review had been completed into the FCO’s management and release of the colonial administration files. The review was undertaken by the former British High Commissioner to Canada, Mr Anthony Cary.

Cary report on release of the colonial administration files

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If you use assistive technology and need a version of this document in a more accessible format please email webmaster@fco.gov.uk quoting your address, telephone number along with the title of the publication (“Cary report on release of the colonial administration files”).

On average, the FCO only withholds around 1% of information reviewed for release.

Following the sensitivity review process, whole files, whole documents or parts of documents may be closed or retained for a specified and approved period if the content is deemed to be sensitive. If part of a document is withheld, sensitive content will be redacted (blanked out).

Information can be closed under Freedom of Information Act (FOI) exemptions. Information can only be closed if the FCO makes an application for closure to the Lord Chancellor’s Advisory Council on National Records and Archives. Once the specified period of closure has expired, the FCO must re-review the closed material and either release it or submit an application for a further period of closure. The exemptions which the FCO uses most frequently for closure are Section 27 (international relations), Section 38 (Health and safety) and Section 40 (personal information) . Closed information is held by The National Archives (TNA) securely and separately from open records. Under Section 66 of the Freedom of Information Act, TNA is responsible for answering Freedom of Information requests for closed material (in consultation with government departments). Further information on the legal basis and process for closing information is available in the TNA publication Access to Public Records (p.7ff.)

The FCO may also retain information under Section 3(4) of the Public Records Act. Applications for retention are made to the Lord Chancellor’s Advisory Council and the subsequent Lord Chancellor’s Instruments are signed by the Lord Chancellor. Retained information is held by the FCO for a specified period and the FCO is responsible for answering any Freedom of Information requests for retained material (please see the FCO’s home page on gov.uk for details of how to make an FOI request to the FCO). The commonest grounds for retention are described on pages 26-27 of the TNA’s Access to Public Records. Records can be retained on grounds of sensitivity, for business use by the department or because of a backlog of records awaiting review.

In November 2011, the Lord Chancellor authorised the retention of all of the colonial administration files for two years in order to allow time for the FCO to review and release the files. This specific authorisation expired in December 2013 and any information which the FCO continues to withhold after that date from these files has now been closed or retained through further applications to the Lord Chancellor’s Advisory Council.

In some instances, the Lord Chancellor has given his approval for the retention of large categories of records of a similar character across government departments. This means departments are not required to apply to the Lord Chancellor’s Advisory Council on a case-by-case basis to retain qualifying records. The most widely used is the Security and Intelligence Instrument which covers records relating to security or intelligence service activities. Some migrated archive records are retained under this Instrument.

How many closures and retentions are there for the colonial administration files?

At Professor Badger’s request the FCO is publishing statistics for retentions and closures for the colonial administration files. These statistics are available through the link below.
View statistics for retentions and closures for all eight tranches of the colonial administration files. (PDF, 265KB, 2 pages)

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