Government – guidance

FCO archive records

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Archive Management Team.

The FCO’s commitment to transparency

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is committed to increasing public knowledge about foreign policy and the work of the FCO. As the Minister for Europe stated to Parliament in January 2015 the FCO is committed to complying with the Public Records Act and to full transparency with respect to our record holdings.

The main FCO archive

The FCO maintains a records archive managed by the FCO’s Archive Management Team. This main archive consists principally of records in paper format and most of these records are housed at FCO Hanslope Park. A smaller number of archive files are managed by the Archive Management Team in London.

Like all government departments, the FCO maintains an archive of its standard departmental files. We hold around 600,000 of these files in the main archive, most of which are not yet due for transfer to The National Archives (TNA).

The main archive also holds a further collection of files, also estimated at 600,000, which are known as ‘non-standard files’ - those which are outside the normal FCO filing system. These non-standard files are generally older than the departmental files and were created mainly by the FCO or its predecessors (such as the Colonial Office).

Files outside the FCO corporate file plan were formerly known as “special collections”. We have dropped this term because it is not an accurate description of these files. “Special collection” is a term mainly used in academic libraries to describe their collection of rare books and manuscripts.

Archive records held in departments and at overseas posts

Some archive records are held outside the central archive, in FCO departments and at overseas posts.

Following a records audit carried out in Autumn 2014, we have identified around 170,000 files in legacy record series held outside the FCO’s central archive. These are records series which include but do not necessarily wholly consist of files overdue for review under the Public Records Act. The Minister for Europe informed Parliament about these files on 21 January 2015. As the Minister explained, a significant proportion of the files contain copies of original records or routine management, finance, personnel and consular records. However, some of the records are likely to be of long-term historical interest.

All legacy files identified during the Autumn 2014 audit are retained under a legal Instrument approved by the Lord Chancellor. The FCO has requested further periods of legal retention for these files in order to allow us time fully appraise the files under the Public Records Assessment.

Our initial assessment is that the legacy files identified during the audit consist of the following broad categories of material:

  • Records which the FCO needs for business purposes and which are unlikely to fall within The National Archives’ collection policy. These records include FCO management, estate and finance records held at FCO overseas posts; copy records required for the FCO’s research and historical functions; and routine consular records. We estimate records of this kind account for around three-quarters of the total

  • Records which may fall within The National Archives (TNA) collection policy and which need more detailed appraisal (around 13% of the total). This material includes historical records held at overseas posts

  • Records which we will incorporate (without any further appraisal) into the FCO’s non-standard collections release plan and which we have categorised as high priority (around 1% of the total) (to be prepared for release by 2019), or medium to low priority (around 9% of the total) (to be prepared for release by 2027)

  • Material which does not qualify as FCO records (around 3% of the total), comprising for example copies of historical records created by other government departments, artefacts (such as seals, plaques and flags); and published material.

The FCO’s paper file inventory

In line with Section 10.2 of the Lord Chancellor’s Code of Practice on the management of records, the FCO carries out regular record audits.

In 2013, we asked a specialist contractor to carry out an audit of records held by the FCO’s Archive Management Team. Since November 2013 we have made data from this audit available on and we have continued to update and publish this data based on further audits of this material.

During the audit of 2014 we collected two types of data.

  • A specialist contractor physically inspected legacy paper files held in the UK (those overdue for review under the Public Records Act)

  • We asked overseas posts to report all of their paper file holdings. FCO staff overseas did not have the support of a specialist contractor. We therefore asked for summary information on paper file holdings rather than a detailed breakdown of legacy and non-legacy files.

The FCO’s latest paper file inventory consists of data from both the 2013 and 2014 record audits. The purpose of these audits was to identify legacy files and only records series which contain legacy files are included in the inventory, with the exception of record series where the earliest date of creation has yet to be established. It is important to note that none of the files in the inventory created in 1987 or later are overdue for review under the Public Records Act and that all of the files in the inventory which are overdue for review are retained by the FCO under a legal instrument granted by the Lord Chancellor.

The FCO paper file inventory is a dataset which helps FCO staff carry out searches of FCO records. It is a working document and constantly updated. We also use the data to assist with our record review work under the Public Records Act.

The FCO’s file release process

The FCO’s file release process guidance sets out the file review and release process in detail.

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